The Name Game

A way to get students thinking about pronunciation, using common names

Glenn Huntley

In the past, English teachers would stress pronunciation far more than is common today, and we now realize that there are many other important aspects of language that affect the quality of communication. One aspect of pronunciation that is not often mentioned in English textbooks, though, is the pronunciation of common names used in English-speaking countries. The extent to which even higher-level students of English are unfamiliar with the correct pronunciation of western names can be astounding, yet this is an obvious need for many ESL learners.

What's the solution? One very simple way to tackle this topic, while also creating a half-hour activity for every class, is to start by compiling a list of common names, in two columns, on a sheet of paper. Include both the first and family name (e.g. Robert Brown). Examples taken from real life, as long as they are reasonably common, are usually best. Try to include names where confusion would be likely or where errors are often made. For example, students are usually surprised to learn that Stephen and Steven share the same pronunciation. A real doozy that will stump just about everyone is Siobhan.

Go through the sheet by asking each student to read out one name aloud. If they make a mistake, ask them and/or other students to try again. If nobody has any idea, that's the time for the teacher to come in and provide the correct pronunciation. If time is limited, the teacher may have to jump in and give the right pronunciation straight away, before moving on to the next name.

While going through the names, look for useful opportunities to expand. For instance, if you have a Bob on your list, ask them what name it's short for. Likewise, if there is a name that is often abbreviated, see if they know the shortened version (William and Bill, for example). As much as possible, try to encourage students to make connections to help them guess the correct pronunciation. If they have covered the family name Mahoney, for example, this could assist them with the name McMahon. This will extend the usefulness of the activity to names not covered in class. Emphasize to them, though, that names are a highly individual issue and that the standard pronunciation is not always followed (just consider Colin Powell).

After you have finished going through the list, backtrack through it and ask the students the gender of each name. Once again you'll be amazed at how what is obvious to us is not always apparent to people of another culture. At the end, as a way of rounding off the activity, discuss with the students how they might distinguish male and female names, if they're unsure. There are no hard-and-fast rules about this, but one tip is the higher frequency of vowels and/or vowel sounds at the end of female names. Of course, this kind of activity has its obvious limitations. In an age when multiculturalism is common in most western countries, some people may point out that this kind of activity may be unnecessarily biased towards Anglo-Saxon names. Also, a single page of names is hardly even a good start at covering the thousands of names out there. Nevertheless, it's one way to get students thinking about the pronunciation of names, and may just make them pay more attention the next time they encounter a foreign name. ESL Reviews & Articles© Glenn Huntley 2007
Glenn taught English in Japan for nine years. He started to help others thinking of going to Japan to teach English.