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Should Teachers Assign Target-Language Names?

Thanks to its partnership with publisher Eye on Education, EducationWorld is pleased to present this blog post by Rebekah Stathakis, author of A Good Start:147 Warm-Up Activities for Spanish Class.

I am used to hearing the same responses when I tell people I am a Spanish teacher. Often, people want to show me what they remember from high school saying, “Hola. Me llamo...” Or, they complain that they don’t remember much from studying Spanish in school (that is a topic for another blog post!). Another frequent response is something along the lines of, “Then you should call me ‘María’—that was my name in Spanish class!” Unfortunately, it seems that for every person I meet who happily shares her Spanish class name with me, another gives me some type of warning like, “I hope you don’t give your students Spanish names—I hated that!”

Honestly, when preparing for my first year of teaching, I didn’t give much thought to giving students Spanish names. I was busy trying to prepare my room, organize all my materials, learn the policies and procedures at my school, and plan engaging lessons. The first day of school, seventh- and eighth-grade students excitedly arrived announcing, “My regular name is Omar but in Spanish class I’m Pedro.” The sixth graders promptly asked me, “When do we get our new names?” That first night, I typed up a long list of Spanish names and posted it in my room the next day so that students could think about what names they would like to select. My only rule was that students needed to select new names for themselves; I wasn’t keen on the idea of calling my students “taco” or “hola” (both real suggestions from sixth-grade boys!).

Throughout the years, I have repeatedly questioned having students select target-language names. There are certainly some compelling arguments from teachers who both support and oppose this practice. Here are some of the most common arguments I have heard, as well as my responses.

Opposing target-language names:

“We are teaching students to be able to travel and encounter people who speak another language. When our students travel, we want them to be able to authentically introduce themselves (including helping other people understand their names). Our students won’t be assuming new identities every time they travel to a new country!”

There is definitely some truth to this argument. It is important for our students to understand how to present their names to speakers of other languages and how to understand the way other people will pronounce and use their names. Clearly, our students will need to be able to use their real names on passports and other legal documents. However, selecting a target-language name is actually a common international practice. I grew up in international communities in Madrid and Caracas. Many of us change the spelling or pronunciation of our names to fit in with the local language. Furthermore, I know many people who completely change their names to use something in the target language. The practice also exists in the United States; for example, I know a girl named “Vasiliki” who goes by “Vicki” with English speakers.

“Your name is part of your identity. It isn’t respectful to your students to change their names.”

I agree that names are definitely part of your identity and it is very important to me to show my students that I care about them and respect them for who they are. In my experience, when I encounter people who tell me how much they hated having a Spanish name, the new names were usually assigned by their teachers. I wouldn’t feel comfortable assigning students with new names because I would worry that it might send students the wrong message and wouldn’t contribute to the respectful and inclusive community that I want to foster.

“Logistically, I can’t even imagine assigning new names—I teach 150 students a day and it is hard enough to learn their real first and last names. There is no way I could also learn a new target-language name!”

New names can definitely be challenging to learn! I also have a hard time learning all the names at the beginning of the year, so I use a variety of memory devices to help me such as having students create name pictogram. When I run into former students, I almost always remember their Spanish names first and need a minute to remember their given names.

In favor of target-language names:

“I want my students to feel completely immersed in the language. When they walk in my room, they should feel like they are making a transition to a different place and using a different name helps them feel completely immersed.”

Although target-language names can help with this issue, there are definitely other strategies that can also be effective. I had a light-up stop sign at the door of my room, I added “English” after the word “Stop.” As students walked in, I reminded them that they were always welcome in my room but their English needed to stay outside. I always greet them at the door in Spanish and surround them in comprehensible input.

“My students love their target-language names! What is the harm if they are enjoying themselves?”

I also find that my students seem to really love their names. I want to carefully monitor that all students actually enjoy their new names. Although some students may be very vocal in expressing their excitement, there certainly could be some students who quietly hate the idea of picking a new name.

“Giving students target-language names will help my students be exposed to and comfortable with other names.”

Although this is true, there are many other ways to meet this goal without assigning new names. As students read stories, complete role plays, watch videos, and participate in other activities they should be exposed to many different names. Furthermore, many of us live in communities where we are already exposed to a variety of names from different languages.

Although I continue to reflect on what is best for my students, I have decided to allow students to select new names if they want to. I provide students with a list of Spanish names and also share some name Web sites. I share my own experiences living in international communities and we talk about naming practices around the world. Then, I give my students the opportunity to decide what they want to do. I hope that this approach will help me show my students that I value and respect them, that I want to immerse them in language experiences in ways that are comfortable for them, and that they have choices in my classroom.


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