Personal names discursively index identities, including socio-cultural identities of ethnicity, nationality, language and religion (Pilcher 2016). The complexity of entanglements between names and identities means that if names are misspelt/mispronounced, identities are misrepresented. This may result in affected persons feeling disrespected, disempowered, excluded and/or othered (Wheeler 2016).

Data show there are now more international students and more Black, Asian and other minority ethnic students studying in English universities (UK Universities 2018) than ever before, suggesting that higher education has become less monocultural, mononational, and monolingual in recent years, and that there is greater variability in students’ names. But what are the experiences of educators in higher education in the UK with regard to the pronunciation of students’ names, and what are the experiences of those students’ whose name might be subject to mispronunciation?

The Say My Name study

The Say My Name study, funded by the British Academy, used a survey to map current policy and practice within higher education institutions in England relating to the pronunciation of students’ names, and qualitative methods to capture experiences of higher education students and staff. Here, we highlight some key findings (all names used in data extracts are pseudonyms).

Survey findings

Our survey captured responses from 31 institutions of higher education in England. Only two institutions reported that they had a formal policy or guidance on the pronunciation of students’ names, and both of these related solely to graduation. Thirteen institutions reported some individualised practices by educators and some ad hoc ‘activities’ relating to the pronunciation of students’ names (again, mostly related to graduation). These findings suggest that degree-awarding institutions in England are not engaging systematically with the issue of the pronunciation of students’ names.

Experiences of student-facing staff

We held semi-structured one-to-one interviews with ten staff from eight different institutions whose roles brought them into contact with students. Staff were not aware of any institution-wide policies or guidance but did talk about their own ad hoc, individual strategies for saying students’ names correctly. A key one was to ask a student directly how their name should be pronounced. Several staff felt that this should not be done in a group setting, however, because it puts students under a spotlight, drawing attention to them as being ‘different’ and as ‘other’.

I would ask the student and … I would want to do that in … a one-on-one [meeting]. I wouldn’t really like to do that in a group with students. So that there’s not that sort of awkward kind of conversation in front of everybody else. I think that’s potentially uncomfortable for them….
Sarah, Associate Professor, University of Crestbury

Staff also said that they undertook ‘backstage’ preparatory activities, including using online pronunciation resources such as Google,  to try and ensure they had worked out in advance how students’ names should be pronounced. The shift to online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic was also mentioned as providing a resource to aid in the pronunciation of students’ names.

[With online learning], you can see their name written now, so you’ve at least got more of a chance of getting it [pronunciation] right, if not completely right.
Katy, Senior Lecturer, Regisby University

Staff participants we interviewed wanted to do better at pronouncing their students’ names and would have liked more centrally provided technological tools and training from their institutions to help them.

Experiences of students

We held semi-structured one-to-one interviews with twenty students studying at degree-awarding institutions in England. Students felt that even failed attempts at name pronunciation showed that staff were at least trying to respect their individuality and cultural heritage, and that this was a better alternative than name avoidance by staff.

As I said, people don’t know how to pronounce my name. Then they tend to avoid it. I think that’s the major issue, yeah.
He Yu, Alderton University

When faced with a mispronunciation of their name by a lecturer, students in our study might correct staff, but this very much depended on the particular context e.g., class size, online or in-person classes, and perceived power imbalances between teaching staff and students, including concerns about what the consequences of correction might be.

No, I do not tell teachers myself if they get it wrong. I do if they ask me directly but would not interrupt to say they did. I think I would be rude to stop to tell them and do not want them to think I am being troublesome or rude. They will mark my work with my name, so I try to be friendly and not seem cross about my name.
Baako, University of Tanton

Name avoidance or mispronunciation by staff were experienced by some students as exclusionary, impacting their engagement with their learning and their feelings of belonging. Constantly having to deal with incidents of mispronunciation of their names by staff was also hard work.

It makes me feel horrible, like I don’t belong. I feel like I already don’t belong there because I’m not English, but pronouncing my name wrong, it just makes matters worse.
Reka, Carbury University

Having a conversation of correcting them all the time isn’t really fun. Like, I have to, like, keep saying, “no, this is how you say my name”. I don’t want to keep having that conversation.
Aamir, Regisbury University

Messages for policy

Higher education institutions currently rely disproportionately on an ad hoc and uneven suite of strategies deployed by individuals in relation the pronunciation of students’ names.

Instead, a ‘whole university’ approach should be implemented, achieved through training for all university staff, induction for all students, the use of fit-for-purpose software solutions designed to aid the correct pronunciation of names (and not just at graduation), and integration of such software with students’ records systems. To draw on Goffman’s (1959) theorisation of identities, such whole university approaches to the pronunciation of students’ names would shift the significant, and often underrecognized, identity work currently being done by staff and students from the ‘front stage’ to the  ‘backstage’ of their interactions.

You can download some resources from the Say My Name project here.

Dr Jane Pilcher is Associate Professor of Sociology in the School of Social Sciences at Nottingham Trent University. Jane studies personal naming practices, in terms of identities and bodies, gendered forenames, and also family surname choices in the context of greater diversity and flexibility in contemporary gender identities and family relationships. Jane is the founder and director of the People’s Names Research Network, an affiliation of academics around the world who study personal names. She leads a Leverhulme Trust-funded study examining experiences of names and naming in adoptive family life.

Dr Hannah Deakin-Smith is a researcher in the School of Social Sciences at Nottingham Trent University. Hannah completed her PhD in the geography department at Loughborough University in 2012, focusing on international student mobility. Hannah was a qualitative researcher on the European Union funded project “POCARIM”, exploring academic mobility. Hannah worked on the Say My Name project examining student and staff experiences of name (mis)pronunciation in higher education. Hannah is now researcher on a Leverhulme Trust-funded study examining experiences of names and naming in adoptive family life.