It is a unique world that I teach in. On a typical day I have students from Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Congo, Burundi, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Burma, Ukraine…and a handful of other countries. I find that even what appears to be the simplest name may actually be a tongue twister for my American English tongue.
And yet, I am told, and firmly believe, that names show respect to people and help to create community and camaraderie. More importantly, as a teacher, it shows that I care when I try to pronounce a name correctly, even if I fail miserably.
And just What’s In a Name?
My obsession with names began long ago. I would spend hours as a child going over my grandmother’s name book and carefully pick out the best names with the best meanings for my future children…or a character in my most recent attempt at novel writing.
When I became an English instructor at LSS, my obsession with names continued. I found it fascinating to hear all the different names and pronunciations. I also found it intriguing that all my Nepalese women seemed to have the same middle name…Maya…and my Nepali men a common middle name…Bahadur. In fact I was so intrigued that I finally asked why? After a lengthy explanation, my students told me that Maya means “love” and Bahadur means “bravery.” They also informed me that first names, too, had meanings, such as Santi means “peace,” Chhabi means “key,” and Phul means “flower.”
Recently I was able to discuss names with some of my other students from around the globe. We discussed: Who chose their name? Does their name have a special meaning? What is common practice with naming children in their home countries? Students were more than eager to share with me (and often laugh with me as I tried very hard to get the names right).
One interesting thing I learned was that a student from Sudan was named according to the day of the week. If a child was born on a Tuesday, the girls were all one name and the boys another, and then of course the other days had their own corresponding names. He said though that things have changed over the years, and this is not necessarily followed any more.
Additionally, another Sudanese student shared that children receive their own name plus the name of their father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. Thus a child could be named Aziza Mohammed Ali Osman (child-father-grandfather-great-grandfather’s names respectively) and this goes for either a boy or a girl.
My own name was always kind of an embarrassment for me as a child, and even today I have students calling me “Hi There,” “He There,” and “Heater.” Coincidentally a gentleman from Ethiopia shared that he, too, was always embarrassed about his name as a child as it is not a common name. In fact it was at the suggestion of a family friend that he received his moniker. Then one day he heard his name (at the refugee camp no less) and there was another with his name. He said he was so relieved to meet someone else with his name.
Finally, for today, a student from China explained that their name means “Red Sun.” For him, this was a good name, to be named for the beautiful red sun in the sky. Certainly this was a name that he was proud of, just as my other students are proud of their names and their heritage…just as I am proud of my name and my heritage, too.
Written by Heather Glidewell | LSS Center for New Americans | Adult ESL Instructor
300 East 6th Street, Suite 100 | Sioux Falls, SD 57103
1-866-242-2447 toll free | 605-731-2059 fax