What’s In a Name?

For the first 20+ years of my teaching career (when I was a textbook-based, traditional drill and kill teacher), I always gave students a French or Spanish name when they entered my first-year language classes, which would stay with them throughout their second language study at our school. Recently, however, I have abandoned this practice. Reasons why are described below.

Over the years I’ve had more Pablos, Marías, Moniques, and Pierres than I can shake a stick at. Names were given on the first day of class, which was also when students made name tags with their new names on it. As my students and I went through our introductory classes together, I often would pick up a student’s name tag and use it during a pronunciation lesson or conversation about accent marks. It was great to talk about the Spanish pronunciation of the letter j, for example, and then go pick up the name tag of the kid who chose the name “José” to illustrate my point.

In addition, most of my students loved having a French or Spanish name. Some students would call each other by their Spanish or French name in other classes, and I enjoyed it when students came to my class and told me about how they accidentally wrote their Spanish or French name on a math test. I even had a few students confess that they did not know the real name of some of their classmates and knew them only by the name given to them in my class.

But over the years, I began to reevaluate this practice. First, I started noticing in Spanish class that I had boys fighting over the name “Jesús” just because they thought it was funny to be named after Christ. I also had multiple boys fighting over being called “Juan” so they could make puns like, “I’m Juan in a million.” Other boys wanted to be called “Pablo” in honor of the drug lord Pablo Escobar. Things were no better in French class, where my male students fought over the names with Arabic roots like “Habib” and the female students all wanted the name “Latifah.” I eventually realized that my naming practice was perpetuating negative stereotypes and inadvertently giving students permission to make fun of people from another culture.

In addition, one of my classroom goals was to have students realize that the language they were studying was real and alive, spoken my millions of people all over the globe (This is one of the reasons why the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) advocates using authentic resources in second language classrooms). I didn’t want them to think of Spanish or French as something artificial that they only used when in my classroom.

In his book While We’re On the Topic, Bill VanPatten is adamant that all language used in class be part of authentic communication. This is the reason why he doesn’t have students pretend to be in an airport or restaurant in his classes. By extension, how authentic and real can communication be when someone’s real name is Caleb but classmates are calling him Federico? Not very authentic at all, I think. Over time, it started to seem counterproductive to give students a false identity when I was spending so much time trying to promote the authenticity and the real-world value of studying a second language in my class.

These days, I don’t have nametags to help me illustrate pronunciation or accent usage. My students figure those things out anyway through frequent classroom use. Also, I call everyone in class his or her given name or nickname. If a student has a name that is 100% identical in English (our first language) and Spanish or French (like David in Spanish or Rose in French), I will pronounce that name with an appropriate French or Spanish accent. If students’ names have a Spanish or French translation, I share that with students (“Your name is Michael? In Spanish it would be “Miguel.”) but never address them with it. The boy in Spanish class named Matthew is never “Mateo,” and the girl in French class named Mary is never “Marie.” These days, I’m all about keeping it real! How about you?

5 thoughts on “What’s In a Name?

  1. Jodi Tebeau says:

    I agree with what you say here, and I too abandoned the Spanish names in my Spanish classes several years ago (partly because I have a hard enough time remembering 1 name for all 130 students I have in a given year, let alone 2!). Where I differ from you is I DO use the Spanish equivalent of a student’s name because, at least in my study abroad experiences, that is what Spaniards did. The Mike in my group became Miguel, the Matt in my group became Mateo. This doesn’t feel inauthentic to me. Any student whose name does not have an equivalent in Spanish I just leave as is. Just my two cents 🙂

    Like

    • sraarch says:

      I teach middle school, where kids feel jealous about everything. I think I would have a lot of dissatisfaction in a class where John gets to be Juan but Caleb has to be Caleb because there’s no equivalent. I’d have a bunch of kids screaming “That’s not fair!” But I must confess that when I was in France and Spain, I was called the French and Spanish equivalent of my American name.

      Liked by 1 person

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