Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"Hello, my name is Shiney Sprout!" and on English names for Chinese students

By Pete Marchetto

A teacher recently remarked that he or she didn't enforce the changing of some of his or her students' more bizarre English names citing various examples of strangely named westerners and the sense that such enforcement would be somewhat draconian.

The fact is that I actually do enforce the changing of strange names with as much pressure as I can bring to bear without causing actual bodily harm. What seems to lead to students selecting strange names is less a desire to experiment or be eccentric than a misunderstanding of the nature of western names. This is akin to my having selected a Chinese name for myself that my students told me was unacceptable; a choice of two characters whose meanings I liked together rather than conforming to Chinese naming traditions.

In response to students' criticism of my choice I pointed out that China had its own history of strange names; most recently in the wake of the Communism when new names came to the fore that were considered patriotic or revolutionary. However, as I came later to realise, (my students too polite to point it out to me), it was one thing for the Chinese to change their pattern of naming in response to historical events; quite another for an Englishman to stroll into the country and presume to do likewise.

Similarly, while the odd westerner will indeed saddle their offspring with some ridiculous name, ('Utensil' being the strangest I have come across, an American couple liking the sound of the word and so inflicting it upon their innocent child), it's quite another for Chinese people to introduce themselves as 'Gun', 'Martian' or 'Edgar Allen Poe'. The strange name will be taken for what it generally is... ignorance of western traditions. My student Ivy - formerly known as Shiney Sprout - may have put a considerable amount of research into her previous incarnation but I'm pleased to think that I might have saved her some future embarrassment in insisting that her effort was wasted.

One thing I DO think is important is that the students have as much information as possible in choosing their names and so I have a now dog-eared list of several hundred acceptable male and female names with their meanings. The more information the students have in selecting their names - and, indeed, the more effort they put into doing so - the closer their attachment. Random on-the-spot naming is something I always try to avoid.


Pete said...

Since writing this some time ago I have changed my view, questioning less the obvious folly of unreasonable 'English names' and more the less obvious folly of using English names at all.

In China in particular the motivation seems to be the belief that the adoption of all things western, (pick your own subculture; the Chinese system doesn't deal much with such subtle distinctions), will aid the student in expressing themselves in English. Just this evening I found myself in a heated discussion with one of my students over the value of spending time in an already overstuffed semester to do a course on the finer details of British culture much of which, no doubt, is inaccurate in any case.

What IS English these days? No longer, certainly, the language of the English, nor even of its erstwhile colonies. Here in China you can even find it being spoken between individual Chinese should one speak Cantonese and another Mandarin. The Chinese seem unaware of the fact, a fact some of us often forget ourselves, that English is not being taught for communication with native speakers but, by and large, for communication with other second language speakers, often with cultural backgrounds that owe nothing to the west.

One question I have put to my students is this. 'Are you adopting or borrowing English?' The answer that comes back is almost invariably 'borrowing'. Along with that comes the notion that in order to utilise it they have to become 'little westerners', trying to emulate western behaviour in everything from how to use a knife and fork to being able to decorate a Christmas tree.

This idea that they have to somehow sacrifice themselves - their culture, their background, their history, their nationality - in order to use English successfully disturbs me. I am with a growing movement in Japan that is seeking to see English adopted as a Japanese language through which the Japanese can express themselves and their own heritage. Better that by far than becoming a bemused pseudo-westerner trying to communicate with another second-language speaker who him- or herself may owe nothing to western culture.

One argument I have seen put up against this surprisingly often - surprisingly because the fallacy to me seems obvious - is that if one learns, say, Chinese one learns it along with Chinese culture. Clearly the comparison is false. One learns Chinese to communicate with the Chinese. English is unique in that it is now a global language. What students should be introduced to is cross-cultural communication, not western culture.

A Chinese graduate may find him- or herself discussing a construction contract in the Middle East knowing Christmas traditions inside out while having not the first notion of Ramadhan. I have yet to find a single student that has heard of Eid, but they can sing you any carol of your choice. Sadly too many western teachers see their own culture as paramount in the teaching of English and themselves add to the burden of western culture the students have to bear.

And so, in homage once more to Shiney Sprout, I would say this. I am sorry to say I can no longer remember her name. But I know for sure it wasn't 'Ivy'.

True enough I did suggest that one of her college mates change his name. I still remember his real name and the lad himself with great affection, but I suggested he choose another Chinese name and not an English one. Dear Wan Ke...

Pete Marchetto

Editor said...

I agree with you, Pete. I really admire Chinese people who refuse to take on English names. The great actor, Chow Yun Fat, refuses go by an English name even though his Chinese name sounds nearly repulsive in English. He is forcing Westerners to use an unfamiliar type Chinese name if they want to talk about him.