I’ve been teaching ESL for 10 years and in that time you can’t imagine the ridiculous names I’ve encountered in my classes. In South Korea, every class had a Harry Potter or a David Beckham. There were countless Dragons and Kings and Warriors. I even had a kid called Mikhail Gorbachev! (His mother insisted on it.) In China, every other girl seems to be called Spring, Summer, Autumn, or Winter. Every month in the calendar, every type of weather, every flower, and every tree is spoken for. Sometimes, names are plucked out of the air just because “they sound nice.” I’ve had boys called Peter Pan, Husband, and Tomorrow. Girls take boys’ names; boys take girls’ names. I’m sure you’ve seen news stories about Chinese people called Hitler and Lemon. It is madness.

Why Do We Give ESL Learners English Names? 

Many times during my teaching career I have encountered students with Spanish or German or Japanese names and wondered… why? If I was learning Korean, I would surely take a Korean name. I wouldn’t pick a Thai name and transliterate it into Korean… yet that’s precisely what many ESL learners do.

So why do we give ESL learners English names in the first place? What is the actual point here? Why not just call them by their real name, if in the end they’ll just pick some random name that isn’t even English?

Well, there are various reasons:

  1. It helps them – at least at a young age – master some basic English sounds.
  2. It helps the teacher remember and correctly call their names.
  3. It helps them identify as an English learner and get in a classroom mode.

Ok, so one of those reasons was actually for the benefit of teachers and not students. That was, for me, a bit of a sticking point for many years. I was dead-set against students having English names – or rather, imposing English names upon them. I’ve learned several languages without actually adopting a name in that language. There’s nothing wrong, I feel, with speaking Chinese and still calling myself David.

The Argument Against English Names

For a long time, I thought that it was silly to have English names for your students. It’s primarily for the benefit of teachers, it seems, who cannot be bothered to learn their native names – or who feel embarrassed calling out difficult-to-pronounce sounds. Yet being a teacher is difficult and we need to adapt to these difficulties.

It seemed to me, also, that some students were reluctant to have English names, and others had them but changed them freely… or simply didn’t respond to them because they couldn’t remember or recognize them. The whole thing, at times, seemed like a distraction.

Many of my Korean and Chinese friends who speak English go by their birth names. They may have had an English name forced upon them at some point in their childhood, but they didn’t keep it into adulthood and didn’t find it necessary for mastering the language. Sure, maybe foreigners don’t pronounce it correctly but that’s no big deal… Korean people can’t say “David” very well either. It doesn’t mean we should go changing our name, right?

The early days of teaching a class of ESL learners can be a struggle for many reasons, and one of those is the rigmarole of students choosing and changing names, and then the teacher have to learn and call them, but the students never actually responding… It just seems so unnecessary.

But Wait… Maybe There’s Another Reason

Recently, I had a change of heart. I’ve always told my students that they can use their real name or choose an English name, but I have never insisted upon an English one. Still, with only a few exceptions, they have chosen English names. I wondered why… and then one day stumbled upon a reason.

It finally dawned on me that English names (or just absurd names for English class) are a form of self-expression. Students actually put a lot of thought into these names, and go by them for many years. They pick them as tributes to their idols or as expressions of their own passions and identities. It is certainly odd when they choose to be called “Obama” or “Reagan” but to them it is important.

A productive ESL class is one where students feel comfortable expressing themselves, and that means being able to choose their own name. Especially in strict Asian countries, young people don’t have much freedom and this means a lot to them. While once I thought giving English names to ESL learners was ridiculous, now I realize that it can be a positive thing.