Carnegie Mellon University


from Communication and Language Support

Saying Your Name

09:55 | September 22, 2022

This Speak! is brought to you by CMU’s Communication and Language Support Program. Speaks are quick podcasts that use research-based information to help you understand effective communication strategies. In this Speak!, we will discuss SAYING YOUR NAME.

Saying your name clearly is a fundamental skill and is especially important for international students in teaching positions. For example, the first day of class is crucial; the way you introduce yourself to your students can either build a bridge or create a barrier. The first impression should be that your English is clear and understandable–

 students sitting in a lecture hall

Class of students at CMU

We’re going to explore some best practices to introduce our names in an effective way to improve our first impressions! To help us with this we have two guests:

“I’m Chun-Ying.”
“I’m Botagoz!”

We open with a story:

An international TA was puzzled by the fact that so many people had trouble with her name. Every time she gave her name (e.g., getting her ID photo, contacting the student center, signing up for the ITA test–that’s International Teaching Assistant test–scheduling the installation of internet at her apartment), people asked her to spell her name. This did not happen in her own country and she wondered about the inability of Americans to spell names. Even when she spelled her name, people had trouble separating her first from last name and often misunderstood certain letters.

She had just as much trouble getting people to pronounce her name correctly. Neither her students nor her fellow graduate students could say her name (one office mate actually pronounced it in a way that sounded like an obscene word in her language). She finally decided that “Americans are just no good with foreign names” and asked people to call her by a popular English name, “Monica”.

Bianca:     So Botagoz, does this sound familiar?

Botagoz:     Yeah I had a very similar situation where people could not pronounce my full
name, so I had to shorten it to "Bota." 

Chun-Ying:     Mm-hm I totally agree with you Bota. Instead of my real name "Chun-Ying," I
have an English name.

Bianca:    Alright let's go through some tips for saying your name. 

Tip #1: Take responsibility for clarifying your name. If others cannot understand or say your name, the fault is yours.

Bota:     I think saying "fault" can be too strong...maybe more like "taking responsibility"
to pronounce your name several times, because sounds can be very unfamiliar
to others? 

Bianca:     Okay so... 

Tip #2: Slow down. You cannot use the same speed you use with native speakers of your language. Speakers of other languages need time to hear each syllable and to understand unfamiliar stress patterns and phonemes. Say each syllable clearly.

CY:     I don't really slow down because I don't even pronounce my name the exact

Bianca:     Okay so give us both versions!

CY:     My real name is in Chinese is "Chun-Ying," but–

Bianca:     (laughing) I have never heard her introducing herself like this–

CY:     I have never introduced myself like this–

Bota:     Do you expect people to know the exact intonation?

CY:     No, I don't expect people to be able to pronounce it correctly. I say, "Oh my name is "Chunying." 

Bianca:     And then what happens after that?

CY:     People still don't really remember my name and like cannot really pronounce it. Even though I've lowered the bar... 

Bota:     When I was interacting with foreigners for the first time, I broke my name into several different meanings that could have a similar meaning in their language. So it was "Boat-a-goes," so it's like "boat" and "go," "Bot-a-goz." My friend’s name was's a "moon" and "lick"–"Munlyk." 

CY:     I should come up with an example like this.

Bianca:     Maybe we can come up with it by the end of this podcast! 

Tip #3: Write both your name and if needed a phonetic transcription (especially if the spelling of your name in English is very different from the pronunciation). "Xue" in Chinese = "Shoe" the shoe that I wear on my foot, and "way" can you show me the way, so "Shoe-way." We have "Koç" in Turkish so it has the "ch" sound except it's represented just by one letter "c" [when written in English] and the "ch" kind of falls away. Like "coach," like the coach of a team, of an athletic team.

Bota:     Or maybe for names like in Kazakh or Russian but they are phonetically transparent so we don't really need to break them into separate sounds.

Bianca:     Tip #4: Expect to spell your name frequently. In the US, there are multiple spellings for many names and the variety of names is overwhelming. Most US speakers understand the need to spell names and do so routinely. I need to spell "Bianca" once a week. I spell my name...on the phone...

CY:     I thought Bianca was a pretty popular name!

Bianca:     Yeah! I think one time I said that to someone who asked me to spell it. I'm like, "Isn't Bianca a popular name?" I think that this tip is really emphasizing that...if your name is "Simone" sometimes people could spell it as a "S-A-M-O-N-E" or "S-I-M-O-N-E." And also creativity is sometimes encouraged in how you spell your name. 

The tips are to slow down and pause between syllables ("BO-TA-GOZ"), clearly indicate the first name followed by the second name, use well-known words to clarify any letters that are difficult for you to pronounce clearly: "P" as in Pittsburgh, "B" as in baseball.

Bota:     I think like spelling out some letter or word is a very American way of doing...because in Kazakh–it's a very transparent language–we don't need to spell it for someone to understand what we're saying. And until you mentioned this tip, I wasn't really aware that spelling out my name would be helpful for others. But if it's too long [like my last name] I will be in trouble!

Bianca:     Have you ever had to do this over the phone?

CY:     Yes! Okay so I have an experience. One time I was calling the health insurance company to double check why I can't log into my account. And so she said,  "Okay, what's your name?" I would always have to spell my name. So say "C-H-U-N-dash-Y-I-N-G." There are some times that people understand it well, but there are always times I have to say, "Okay, it's "N" like "NAIL" because I cannot pronounce it well.

image of business man on the phone

"Businessman Call" by Burst is marked with CC0 1.0

Bota:     In the US, they use specific words to indicate specific letters. So for example for "T" it's always like "Tom" not just any "Tree" or something. 

CY:     Oh really? "T" for "Tom"?

Bota:     I don't know, is it so?

Bianca:     "D" as in "Delta"...

CY:     It cannot be any, any word?

Bota:     I didn't know that.

Bianca:     But you could make someone laugh–by saying "D" as in... "Delirious" I don't know.

Bota:     I would come up with any random words, and they would reconfirm again: "T" as in "TOM?" but maybe I was saying "T" as in "Tree"...

Bianca:     So the last tip is: Do not expect people to be able to repeat your name with the exact phonemes, stress, or tones that a native speaker would use. Be willing to accept pronunciation that is "good enough." Not: "Oh, that's okay (with a giggle),” but “That’s right”).

CY:     When you see my name like it's "Ch" so it's like automatically I would say...

Bota:     ...this is how it's written, but, if you want to pronounce it, it's like "June" the month, the sixth month of the year. 

CY:     Nice! 

Bianca:     I like that! 

CY:     My name is "Chun-Ying."

Bota:     (playing a role) "Is it "CH?" How do you pronounce it?

CY:     It's like "June" 

Bota:     Like the month June?

CY:     Yeah, like the month June!

Bianca:     (playing a role) "Oh but I don't remember seeing your name on the list. I was looking for "June"...

CY:     Uh-huh, yeah so it's written with a "CH," it's because they call it like a romanized translation.

Bianca:     Ohh. Your name is so interesting! I learned something new today!

Bota:     Yeah me too! So every time I see people's names on a list, I try not to pronounce it myself first, but let them say it first. 

Bianca:     And how do you ask this? Like literally, what do you say?

Bota:     I usually say, "Correct me if I'm pronouncing your name wrong," or "Can you give me an example of how to pronounce it?," or "Can you go first and tell me how to pronounce it? I'm trying to pronounce it correctly."

Bianca:     And in your experience how has that question been received by others?

Bota:     I think they were very familiar with that kind of question because I guess they would be receiving that kind of question all the time and they were ready. But I never hear this kind of explanation–usually they go with, "My last name is "...," just call me "...." And sometimes I insist, "No, I really want to pronounce your actual name!"

student smiling at the camera

CMU student

"I really want to pronounce your actual name." 

We're not done with this topic. We hope you found this Speak! useful. Remember that CLS is here to help you with all your communication needs. To book a free appointment with one of our consultants, visit our website. While you’re there, you can click Handouts, Videos, and Other Resources to see more tutorials. Thanks for listening!

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