Butchering names disrespects foreign students, U of A psychology study finds

In a recent survey of 173 international students at the U of A, 75 percent said their foreign surnames were mispronounced and half of those students said they felt it was important for people to try to pronounce them correctly. 

Students understand mistakes happen but appreciate when others make the effort

Ying Shan (Doris) Zhang is a PhD candidate in the University of Alberta's psychology department. (Doris Zhang)

Ying Shan Zhang's names changed when she immigrated to Canada in Grade 6. 

Searching for an English first name to adopt, the 11-year-old settled on "Doris" after stumbling on its association with the Greek sea goddess in a name dictionary.

Though she did not change a letter in her last name, she quickly learned Canadians pronounce it differently than Chinese speakers do, rhyming it with "bang" instead of "young."

It wasn't until she started studying under Kimberly Noels, a psychology professor at the University of Alberta who made an effort to pronounce her name correctly, that she decided to embrace the authentic pronunciation again.

Now a doctoral student in the U of A psychology department's Intercultural Communication Lab, Zhang researches the ramifications of mispronouncing names.

In her recent survey of 173 international students, 75 percent said their foreign surnames were mispronounced and half of those students said they felt it was important for people to try to pronounce their names correctly. 

Students told Zhang their names were part of their identities and that they viewed correct pronunciation as a sign of respect.

Though students said they understood why mispronunciations happen, they expressed a desire and appreciation for people who tried to get them right, Zhang said in an interview with CBC's Radio Active.

Listeners respond

Listeners shared their own misnaming stories with the show on Wednesday.

"As a recent Canadian immigrant from Galicia, Poland, before the Second World War, my mother went to rural Alberta school into Grade 1, where she was first exposed to the English language," wrote Edmonton resident Daniel Deyell.

"The very British teacher heard her first name, 'Bronislawa,' said he couldn't possibly pronounce her name, and renamed her 'Bertha.' She regretted all her life not correcting the teacher and using her new name."

Another listener said he's an elementary school teacher in Edmonton, and people often mispronounce his last name: Virtue.  

"What puzzles me is unlike many other last names around, mine is actually in the dictionary," said Eric Virtue. 

And Leila Daoud tweeted that her friend's name was "so badly mispronounced at convocation that her parents didn't realize it was her graduating." 

Zhang also interviewed university faculty and staff members about pronouncing foreign names .

"They told me that when they showed efforts to get the right pronunciation of their students' names, it helped them to establish comfort, rapport and trust in their relationships with their students," she said.

Zhang plans to publish her research in an academic journal in the coming months.

With files from Emily Rendell-Watson