Acculturation and ESL Students: Name Changing Has Gone Too Far

Acculturation and ESL Students: Name Changing Has Gone Too Far
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From Fei and Yu to Fred and Yvonne

As an English language teacher, I have witnessed the influx of Asian students into local schools and colleges along with the acculturation

of these ESL students. The first time I had the pleasure of students from China, I asked them to assist me in pronouncing their names. “Oh, no, Professor Neas, you can call me by my American name.” I was flabbergasted.

I soon learned that students are encouraged, if not required, to select an Anglo name before traveling abroad. “It is easier for westerners to pronounce and remember your name,” the students are told.

I ask, “Why?” Aren’t there names in the US that are more difficult to pronounce than Fei or Yu?

Loss of Identity

Chinese students with Obama cut -out

Evidently, our society has forgotten the difficulties our forebears faced when they traveled through Ellis Island. We have forgotten the humiliation of African Americans, who often bore the surnames of those who had imprisoned them. We have forgotten the pain of Native Peoples forced onto reservations where their children were taken from them to be forced into schools in which they learned to be “American.”

When my ancestors came off the great ships that herded them like cattle to the shores of the New World, they were handed placards with their names. These names did not necessarily have any resemblance to the actual names of the men, women and children that risked it all to come to America. At the mercy of those processing their entry, Franz Gershowitz might end up being Frank Jones and Michaela Mac Giolla Mochuda might become Mickie MacGillacuddy.

Ask anyone working on genealogies today; they will confirm the difficulties of tracing family members who came through Ellis Island. Sometimes members of the same family, who traveled together, were separated and given different names as they were processed for entry.

The loss of identity had lasting effects on our great grandparents, grandparents and parents. Name change is the first step in loss of culture, because our names tell people who we are and where we come from in the world. McCarthy hails from Ireland while a MacDonald comes from Scotland. Subsequently, a Chang is from China and a Jang is from Korea.

Global Society vs. Personal Identity

In a recent article for Slate by Huan Hsu, he relates that researcher, Laurie Duthie, traces the name change phenomenon to the influx of foreign investors following Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms. Duthie says that the inability for foreigners to pronounce their names frustrated research participants. As a result, they began adopting Anglo names.

While proponents for Anglicizing Asian names may cite convenience, people should be more concerned about loss of cultural identity. Globalization becomes more of a reality every day, but this does not mean that the cultures of the world need morph into one huge conglomerate like the puddingstones of New England. (Puddingstone is a sedimentary rock that is made up of numerous types of stone held together by natural cement caused by the heat and friction of the glaciers.)

As more and more Chinese leave their homeland, acculturation is to be expected. However, throughout history, name change soon leads to disconnection from other cultural ties, such as language, cuisine, and customs.

Emotional Backlash

The emotional damage done by loss of identity is another red flag thrown into this discussion. Children, who are confused about their identity, struggle to find balance. Essentially, when children are given two names, they are being asked to live two lives - one at home and one in public. Like my ancestors, who were told only to speak English so they could fit in, children learn to be ashamed of who they are.

Interestingly, though, in Huan Hsu’s article, he explains that in China, names are not absolute. They change - regularly. Infants are given “milk” names. Adults may change their names to indicate employment, marriage, or education. For the Chinese, changing their names appears to be part of their culture. Names are fluid.

On the other hand, becoming part of another culture, even when it is a personal choice, is laden with issues. Students who come to English-speaking countries to study expect to become part of a community of other students. Learning English, becoming familiar with the culture of the US, Britain or Australia and carrying that knowledge back home are what these students are attempting to do. Having an Anglo identity may seem to ease the transition; however, coupled with loss of other familiar aspects of daily life (food, cultural practices, and daily routines), this can become an overpowering problem for the student, thus hindering their ability to learn.

If students are expected to learn, then supporting who they are, providing connections to their culture, exchanging culture (learning from one another) rather than deprivation of all that is familiar to them and empathizing when culture shock hits, will provide students with an environment where learning takes place.

Acculturation Gone Too Far

Webster defines the term acculturation as “cultural modification of an individual, group, or people by adapting to or borrowing traits from another culture; also: a merging of cultures as a result of prolonged contact.” Acculturation in a society that is globalizing is inevitable; however, there is an enormous difference between voluntary and forced acculturation.

If students come to the States and choose to change their names because they have fallen in love with the culture of North America, that is one thing. On the other hand, if students are told they must change their name to fit in, or for the convenience of their peers and teachers, that is another thing entirely.

Having taught students from around the world, I can testify that Asian names are no more difficult to say than French, Spanish, German, Arab or Hindi names. Learning the correct pronunciation takes time and practice. Just as the English language learners learn to pronounce “v’s” or “w’s” or other letters that do not exist in their native languages, so too, can we learn to say the “qi” and “xi” sounds of Asian languages.

Acculturation and ESL students’ ability to maintain their personal identity are issues that educators and administrators need to bring to the table before another generation joins the long list of Johns and Janes.