A (not so) brief history of my thoughts on English names

Readers not familiar with teaching in Korea or teaching Korean students might be surprised to learn many Korean students adopt English names. I was a bit surprised when I first encountered this phenomenon.  Below, you can find my thinking on this issue at various times. 
[These are not actual literal quotes from the time but just what I might have said/thought at the time]

June 2000  

It is really weird that some Korean students have names that are very different than other Korean names. For example in class there are all these unfamiliar 2 syllable names and then suddenly there is a random Tom thrown in there. Is that his real name? Is it his baptized name or something like that? It seems off to have Toms and Jerrys thrown in there with the Min-Hos and Minjus.

July 2000

I figured out that English name mystery! Hooray. I guess some students want to have English names. It is a thing. They choose ’em and use ’em. Some schools insist on it. I think maybe it makes things easier on the (foreign) teachers. I also heard something about students’ identity in their second language and how they might feel more comfortable speaking English if they are called something different in class. Interesting. I guess thinking back, it is not so strange because we did similar things in Spanish class in high school.

September 2000 

I am pretty glad my school doesn’t insist on English names. Sometimes, though, it is a bit easier to remember an English name because I can connect it someone I have met before. Korean names are not actually all that hard to pronounce. I just sometimes get confused because a lot of the parts are the same and I am afraid I will reverse them. For example, just yesterday I mistakenly called Min-Ji by the wrong name and called her Ji-Min. Honest mistake but I will try to avoid this in the future.

December 2000 

This English name stuff is really common in most hogwons.  I have heard stories where teachers are responsible for naming their students. What a strange responsibility this is! I guess it is actually not so serious because it is not as though this is the kid’s official name for very long. I am glad I have never had to formally do this in class. A few adult students, however, have asked me to help them with choosing an English name. It was kind of fun. I had to tell someone that he doesn’t really seem like a Theodore to me. Where the hell did he get Theodore from? Theodore Roosevelt, maybe. Well, this was not something I expected when I signed up to be an English teacher but it is sort of fun.

March 2001

Haha. One teacher in town was faced with giving his students English names. He chose all stereotypical “black names.” So, there is a Korean kid walking around with the English name LeRoy. Too funny.

April 2001 

I am not so sure the “black name” thing is all that funny anymore. I have sort of mixed feelings about it. First, what sort of responses will kids get when they tell people their name is Tyrone or Ebony or something? But, at the same time why is a “white name” like Molly more appropriate than a “black name?” For me, maybe this is a push for the kids to decide their own English names?

May 2001

I was thinking that it might be good for students to choose their own English names. Now I am not so sure about this. I just substituted for a friend and it was strange to call one student by his  English name, Lord of Destruction.
“What did you have for number 7, Lord of Destruction?”
“Lord of Destruction, please pay attention.” I guess it is not a big deal either way and I think they change English names monthly anyway.

September 2001 

I have a bit more autonomy now with no hogwon manager looking over my shoulder. I am sure I won’t insist on my students, who are grownups, choosing English names. If they want to have nicknames that is totally fine but I will not make it a requirement.

October  2001

I am pleased with my decision not to insist on English names. About 30% of my students choose them. Korean names are really not that hard. I just need to test myself and make some charts in the first few weeks of class in order to memorize the names. Of course my pronunciation is not always perfect but I can try. I think I do OK with it. Some sounds are particularly tricky for me but these are rare. Also, I think it is important to give it a go and show students that we are all working hard and can be outside of our comfort zones.

December 2001  

The more I think about it the more I think these foreign teachers that insist on English names are lazy bastards. It is not that hard. I don’t know why they insist on making students come up with new names just because their teachers are too lazy to memorize the names.

January 2002 

English names are not their names. Students already have names. Korean names. Given by their parents. Forcing them to make new names smacks of imperialism to me. What a nasty thing. Why are people doing this? Lazy imperialists are at this very moment forcing kids to take on new names. It’s shameful, really. It’s even worse in light of  what the Japanese did during colonial times as they forced Koreans to change their names and to only use Japanese. I want no part in such imperialistic practices. It is really disgusting. I can’t believe how widespread such practices are. What are we doing and why are we doing it? I think lots of teachers are not aware of the sort of backdoor imperialism they are supporting. What is so bad about Korean names and Korean culture that it needs to be replaced?

June 2002 

I have no thoughts or concerns about English names. My thoughts are mostly focused on beer and soccer. I am really enjoying the World Cup.

September 2002

I can’t shake the feeling that teachers who insist on students having English names are doing something wrong. Maybe it is not immoral or imperialist but I think forcing someone to use a different name is not exactly cool.  I’d like to think about why this is so common and if there are any benefits to doing this.

May 2005 

I never thought I would be a supporter of English names but now I can see some benefits. As I am currently teaching shipbuilders of various ages and levels in the same company using Korean names brings up some complications. It is also a bit strange for me to just call them by their real given names, seeing as though I am the youngest person in the room by at least 10 years.  Also, I am not thrilled about saying “Mr.” every time I want to talk to someone in class. “Good question, Mr. Park” doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue for me. Perhaps this is my American culture but I don’t really feel comfortable calling a student Mr. something all the time in class. Outside of class might be fine for me but I think it is hard to each and every time in class. For this reason, I can see some utility of the English name stuff. Of course, making student-to-student interaction smoother is just as important. I am still not really a fan of English names but I have seen how they can be helpful.

June 2007 

Lazy foreign teachers insisting on students choosing English names. Why? Do they have no respect for Korean culture? Our students already have names. Why exactly do they need to change their names for the teacher? Isn’t it the teacher that works for the students and not the reverse? How many of these whiteys go by Korean names? Weird.

July 2007

This is probably a bit picky but why do Korean student choose such strange English names and spellings? I don’t like the whole idea of English names but I’d think I would be helpful if Korean students were to choose the most common spelling, right? If the idea is to make things easier for foreign ears then why not actually make it easier. Also, why the heck is Esther such a popular name? I have only met 1 Esther  in the States (and she was Korean-American!) but have numerous Esthers in Korea. Strange.

August 2007

I solved the Esther mystery. Apparently she is in the Bible and this is the reason for the name’s popularity in Korea.

September 2009 

I think I am pretty chill about the whole English name thing now. Either way is fine with me. I don’t want to pressure students to be called English names if they don’t want to be but I also want to give them the choice. I am thinking it is very much a personal choice and I will try to make sure students know this is the case. That said, I just had a weird experience regarding the whole English name thing.  I am working on a TESOL training course for Korean public school teachers and as an activity on the first day of the course we asked participants to write down what they would like to be called. “What you would like to be called in the course” is exactly what I said. I know I said it. It was what I planned on saying and what I actually said. The problem was that the participants heard “what you want to be called” as something like, “Your English name” or “your nickname.” Maybe they didn’t know that their own name was an option. So, we had a bunch of teachers claiming English names though some of them didn’t really want them. This provided some confusion in the ensuing days when we had to re-check what they wanted to be called. It was  a nice learning experience though as what I said was interpreted in a way that was different than I intended. Maybe the expectation was that I would demand participants have an English name.;

Present day 

I am still conflicted about this. Like many things I don’t see it so much as a black and white issue. I think my main idea at this point  is not to impose a name on anyone. I try to let students know that I will call them what they want to be called (if they insist on Mr. Kim for example I will likely just call them Kim instead) and take it from there. Most, but not all my (university) students and all my training course participants call me Mike (or Michael) after a while so that it is an interesting cultural point to consider as well.


  1. Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)

    I never really cared for it. What hit the nail in the coffin was students’ insistence on their Korean names being too difficult for me to pronounce. Bull. What makes us pronounce them incorrectly is the whack romanization used. I pronounce it like it’s spelled in English, but it wasn’t done so by someone who heard the real pronunciation first. Once it’s spelled in a way that reads more or less correctly, suddenly everyone impresses with their fantastic Korean pronunciation.

  2. livinglearning

    This is a topic I’ve spent a lot of thought on as well. My current conclusion is that students should be allowed a choice, but that using English names eases classroom interactions between students of different ages and positions since there are no translations for some of the relational words they’d use. I’m wondering now, though, if it matters. They only do that with each other and outside of class they’ll be speaking to each other in Korean no matter what. They don’t need to conform to the social norms of a *country*, but there will need to be some negotiation of social norms between people of different cultures. I remember being a university student and waiting for our TAs who taught some of the core classes to tell us what to call them. Or going further back, my friends used to ask what to call my mother. Even within a culture there is some negotiation about names.

    • mikecorea

      Hello friend.
      Sorry about the delay in responding. As you know I had some time pressures for a few weeks there.
      I like your point about negotiation about names occurring.

      I still remember the first grownups that insisted on us kids calling them by their first names. Jan and Jim.
      It was interesting.
      (As a random aside I also remember a neighborhood/family friend who decided while drunk that we should call him by his first name. He was quite surprised the next day when we were calling him by his name!! I digress).

      By the way have you ever noticed that so often in movies/tv when someone says “Call my Jim” the response is almost always an awkward, “OK Jim.” Maybe this happens in real life too.

      I currently have a student (grad student) who can’t seem to call me Mike like the rest of his classmates. I don’t really insist much. I figure his comfort is a bit more important than Mine and that I can get over being called Sir or whatever.

      Gosh these comments are all over the place….

      One thing I am sure you have noticed in Korea is teachers being called things like “Anne Teacher” in English. In my earlier days I would say something like “That is simply not English, why are teachers encouraging such nonsense” but now I am not sure.

      You wrote, ” My current conclusion is that students should be allowed a choice, but that using English names eases classroom interactions between students of different ages and positions since there are no translations for some of the relational words they’d use. I’m wondering now, though, if it matters. ” I think that makes two of us.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. stevebrown70

    This whole name thing is very common the ought East Asia and I’ve always found it kind of weird as well. It raises issues related to language and identity – how using another language can impact on who you are and how you are perceived. Like you say, it should be up to the individual to decide. But there’s a problem if they don’t really know what the impact will be if you choose a name like Lord of Destruction, or Boat, or Elvis, or whatever.
    This post is really well-written and I enjoyed it very much – thanks, Mike!

    • mikecorea

      A belated thanks for commenting, Steve.

      By the way, I think Boat is a great English name. I do think it falls into the realm of teacher responsibilty to help students see the potential impact of such names on those they might talk to. I am reminded of a colleague who had to gently talk a badminton playing student out of the name “Power Cock” and into the name “PC.” Good times.

      ***If you are not Steve you might want to check out his recent posts…very much related to identity and language learning and all very interesting http://stevebrown70.wordpress.com/ **

      • stevebrown70

        Power Cock – that’s classy.
        Here’s a question – if you Western folks in Korea attend Korean classes, do you take Korean names? Do your teachers expect you to? If not, why not? If I had a Korean teacher called Louise, for example, how might she respond if I told her I wanted to be called Kim? Or whatever Power Cock is in Korean, for that matter?

      • mikecorea

        The best thing about PCs name is that he had no sense it might be off/offensive.

        Great question regarding Korean names.
        My sense (and this could be from a very limited sample size) is that most westerners don’t take Korean names for Korean class. I think Koreanized pron of their given names is more common. I do know some western folks that go by Korean names from time to time but I think this is a rarity. One friend on twitter said he prefers to go by his Korean name whilst on the peninsula but I also think this is a rarity. Maybe I am just talking to these people in English so everything is different. I have, however, had a variety of Korean names over my time mostly just for fun.
        (thanks for the comments)

  4. Brian

    I agree 110% with Tyson. In my 3 years of teaching here in Korea, I’ve had a total of 2 students ask me to call them by their English name and told them I liked their Korean name better and would be using that instead. Most Korean students and CT’s I’ve spoken to about this topic have said that English names were primarily for the benefit of the foreigner English teacher. Tyson also hit the nail on the head when he said that many Koreans believe that their names are too difficult for foreigners.

    Think how a 16 year old Korean student is going to react when someone calls them by some random foreign name that he or she only uses once or twice for an hour each week. Contrast that with how they’d react if someone uses their Korean name which was given to them at birth and used by every single person they know except for the awkward NSET who supposedly isn’t capable of of learning Korean names.

    Just recently, one student revealed to me that his English name was Derek. I asked him where that came from, and he told me his previous NSET came up with it because the NSET had so much trouble with the pronunciation (which in all honesty isn’t difficult). I asked him which he preferred, and he told me he preferred his Korean name as a few students within earshot who were eavesdropping nodded in agreement. For those NSETs who think it’s difficult, they should try practicing the names with a CT or getting a tutor and bringing a class roster with them and spend an hour learning the right way to say the students’ names. It pays dividends in the end.

    On a recent class survey, one student wrote something along the lines that she really appreciated that I’d taken the time to learn all the students’ names, and that most of the students felt I respected them for that reason. Students appreciate it when their teacher has taken the time and effort to do this, classroom management goes much better, and I think that a teacher can build better relations with their students as a result.

    • stevebrown70

      Of course, the point about imperialism is an important one. In the days of colonialism, missionaries would give “Christian” names to the locals, partly so they didn’t have to pronounce unfamiliar names, but also to foist a new, christian, identity on them. When I worked in Mongolia there were missionaries who did this with their “students”. Does the same thing happen in South Korea, or could the name thing be a legacy of this?

      • Brian

        Not too long ago, Koreans were also strongly encouraged by the Japanese occupiers to take Japanese names. While this is an apples to oranges comparison, the end result is the same. You have foreign names thrust onto people who, to accommodate the NSET (or occupiers as was the case with the Japanese), will go along with it under enthusiastic pretense but under the surface might have a different opinion of their foreign name. As private institutions, hagwons are free to do what they will with regard to English names. But I hope that any NSET’s who use English names in public schools, where rules on student naming conventions (as far as I know) are much less restrictive, will reconsider the use of the Anglo monikers in the classroom.

    • mikecorea

      Hi Brian!
      Thanks so much for the comments.
      (Sorry for the long delay in responding)
      I think I got confused by comments from 2 Korea-based Brians/Bryans but now I have got it in order in my mind.

      I like your stats about students (not) asking you to call them by their English names. It is interesting to think that the benefit is for the foreigner teacher but is not always so helpful.
      (Sometimes of course it is a hindrance when we are expected to know real names but only know nicknames…and this is something that has happened to me a few times lately)

      You wrote, “Think how a 16 year old Korean student is going to react when someone calls them by some random foreign name that he or she only uses once or twice for an hour each week. Contrast that with how they’d react if someone uses their Korean name which was given to them at birth and used by every single person they know except for the awkward NSET who supposedly isn’t capable of of learning Korean names.” Well said!

      I was just talking to a woman whose English nickname is Yu-Na (though her name is Yun-ha). She basically said it is hard for foreigners but that she didnt want to be called something like “Sally” because then she’d never know she was being spoken to.
      (In case you are interested my pronunciation of her name passed muster)

      You offered some good suggestions about practicing and remembering names.
      I think these are great. I also think just not settling on the English name and deciding to use Korean names/offer a choice is a great starting point. One thing I also do in the first few lessons is great a grid and test myself. I also think asking a student for help on pron is a nice way to build rapport. You mentioned rapport as well and I think you made some great points on this.

      Thanks again for reading and for the thoughtful comments.

  5. Joy

    I loved reading this, Mike. I work with a group of Chinese teenagers in Milwaukee, and all of them have used English names since day 1. I’ve had a lot of fun with their names, which range from pretty typical to quite creative, and it’s always interesting to me to learn how they chose these names at the beginning of the semester. As time has gone on, however, a few of the more creatively named students have realized that having unusual names can have social consequences when living in an English speaking country, and seem to be giving some thought to whether they may change them for college or sooner-probably to another English name, though.

    Over time, I’ve learned most of my students’ Chinese names, as well, but only to read on official documents. I never worked hard to learn how to pronounce those names simply because I didn’t have to. I’m now realizing how lazy that has been on my part, and I think that I’m going to work harder to make sure I can pronounce my students’ real names in the future, but also make it clearer in the beginning that they have every right to ask that I and others call them by their Chinese names if they prefer it.

    • mikecorea

      Hi Joy! I am so glad you enjoyed this. I am also happy it gave you something to think about. I don’t really think you were being lazy though. I like your idea of making “it clearer in the beginning that they have every right to ask that I and others call them by their Chinese names if they prefer it”

      I wonder if there is an assumption that they *should be using English names for whatever reason.

      I also like your point about the creative names having some different consequences. As I wrote to Steve above I think this is an important consideration. It is all good fun to have “Lord of Destruction” in class but maybe calling himself this in other situations might not be so awesome (i have no proof that he thought it was anything other than a classroom name of course)

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting!
      (and sorry for the delay in responding)

  6. Autumn

    Ha! I loved this. After having a ‘Pringles’, a ‘Run’ (because he runs away from his wife), and a ‘Big Mountain’ in one class, I asked students to stick to their original names whenever possible. It also broke my heart when students picked an English name that they couldn’t pronounce easily like ‘Rose’ or ‘Claire’. In the end their goal of making it easier for the foreign teacher led to mutual embarrassment when neither party could fully understand what was going on due to the L/R pronunciation issue.

    • mikecorea

      Hi Autumn!
      Thanks for the comments. Thanks also for the reminder of students choosing an English name that presents pronunciation problems for them.
      (Sort of defeating the purpose of making it easier for others in a way).
      It seems like just letting students know that their original names are cool for class is a big step.
      I am still a bit conflicted. If someone wants to be called Pringles in class I think that is pretty fine as long as they know it will likely be received strangely outside of class. Such a simple thing is so complicated. 🙂

      I hope your summer is going well!
      Would love to pay you a visit next summer!

      • Autumn

        That would be awesome! Keep me posted!

        You know, in terms of the Pringles thing it was more an issue for me. I had first met him as Pringles, so after that I couldn’t call him anything else. He eventually moved here to NYC and he really DID NOT want to be known as Pringles anymore, but I just couldn’t remember his new nickname or his real name. He would get really annoyed at me, but I was all like “hey man, I told you choosing the nickname Pringles could have possible consequences!”

  7. Bryan

    I think this is a fascinating topic. Thank you for a thoughtful post about it!

    At David Shaffer’s very interesting KOTESOL presentation on how English education has changed in Korea since the 1970s, I learned that in the 60s and 70s native teachers were given Korean names because people were anxious that strange foreign English names would be too much for the students. I think the ((self-)orientalist?/nationalist?) assumption that there is a big, difficult-to-bridge gap between Korean culture and outside culture and we must ritualize the borders of cultural interaction underlies the English naming phenomenon.

    I have also swung between being very adamant that giving students English names is a bad thing and being indifferent to it, or seeing some benefits.

    One of the reasons I don’t like it is because I worry it contributes to problems students have being able to call up English outside the classroom. I’ve noticed that when I run into students out on the street they often can’t get out any English beyond “Oh! Bryan teacher!”, regardless of their level in class. At first I thought maybe they were just nervous in front of their parents/passers-by/the world, but I think there is actually a problem where their brain is only used to calling up English within the (ritualized) classroom and has trouble connecting English to their outside life. I wonder if using English names(/identities) in class contributes to this. (I also wonder whether classroom/school decor contributes – for example, my public school, like many, has this colorful faux Grecian pillar gateway announcing entry to the “English World” to students. I wonder about relaxing-students-into-“playing”-in-English benefits versus over-ritualizing-English costs. Or maybe the colorful kiddy gateway does nothing at all to my middle school students.)

    However, this is not a battle I’ve chosen to pursue at work. I’ve tried to communicate with my English Center head about this, but it’s a complicated issue and my feelings and opinions don’t seem to sink in because there’s no pressing solve-this-right-now problem. I teach two (public) kindergarten classes of 20+ students for one hour a week and she asked me to give them all English names, and I think the reason is to let them feel like they got a kind of expensive hagwon experience? But I’m not sure and this is just one of many issues at work where communication is confusing and my assumed position tends to revert to ‘what we know all native teachers think and feel’.

    (When I walk past one of the kindergartens on my way home from work, the students all cry out in Korean but can’t call up any of the English they can use in class.)

    (I tried to give them interesting and varied names, but to be honest I don’t think they even remember their English names outside of my class.)

    If I ask my regular middle school students who have obviously spent a lot of time in English hagwon for their name, they typically look at me apologetically and tell me they had an English name before but they don’t like it any more. I have to push to get their Korean names. My regular students are middle school boys and I don’t know a single one who has wanted to be known by an English name beyond 1st grade. (In fact, with students who have moved from my elementary After School into my regular middle school classes, getting to re-know them by their Korean name and new middle school identity seems to have become a bit of a student/NET ritual of its own.)

    (Full disclosure: I have about 500 students and I know few of them by any name, Korean or English. In my defence I teach regular middle school classes only five times in a semester!)

    • mikecorea

      Hey Bryan,
      Thanks for stopping by.
      (Sorry for the delay in responding).

      I am glad you enjoyed the post and I appreciate your additions to the conversations. That stuff about Native teachers in the 70’s being given Korean names is amazing. I never knew that and it makes a certain amount of sense. Good stuff from Dr. Shaeffer sharing it. :

      I think we have talked here and there about the “((self-)orientalist?/nationalist?) assumption that there is a big, difficult-to-bridge gap between Korean culture and outside culture and we must ritualize the borders of cultural interaction” and I think it is a fascinating topic.
      (Please consider this an official nudge for you to blog about it!)

      As for the English names thing it occurred to me a few years ago how adamant I had been on one side about something I was later so unsure about.

      I think you brought up a great point about the distinction between English world and real life.
      (The “colorful faux Grecian pillar gateway announcing entry to the “English World” is just one example).
      This makes me a bit uneasy. As you know I do a lot of work with Korean English teachers. When I get the sense that English is only an option in walled off spaces and special occasions it bums me out quite a bit. Like we can’t have Ss use English in regular classes and need to build fancy places in order for this to happen.

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences with English names. I think they add a lot to the conversation.

      In terms of not choosing this particular battle, I think we need to choose our battles wisely and maybe this is not one that needs your energy at this point.

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful response.

  8. Anjelica

    I think it is 100% up to the student. Some students like to use them because it can depersonalize the learning process, or because it’s fun, or for a million other reasons. I have an English name and a Spanish name and so do most people in my family. It’s not exactly the same, obviously (although some of my family members did get their English names from ESL classes), but I do worry about basically inviting imperialism into my own life by using my English name professionally (which I often do) or by having an internal tug of war every time I meet someone new and I need to “choose” a name. But that’s my struggle. And if the (often white) person that I am being introduced to feels some of that hesitation from me, and it causes them to think about their teaching practices or think about their role in what I’m dealing with…okay? I’d have to deal with it whether or not a teacher insisted that I use one name or another.

    I’m sure that this comment doesn’t make much sense. Identity is that way. As an ESL educator and a member of Generation 1.5, I appreciate and roll my eyes all at once at all the hand-wringing that I see from many other educators. Let them make their own choices and try not to theorize away the agency from their decisions.

    • mikecorea

      Great comments, Anjelica, thanks.
      You wrote, “I appreciate and roll my eyes all at once at all the hand-wringing that I see from many other educators” and this brought a smile to my face. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts and experiences here. You wrote, “I think it is 100% up to the student. Some students like to use them because it can depersonalize the learning process, or because it’s fun, or for a million other reasons” and I think that sounds great. I guess my problem is when it is not up to the students and they are forced to make a decision and choose a new name.

  9. Pingback: An interesting post on naming | Teacherpants
  10. laurasoracco

    I met a Vietnamese student who went by “Lucifer”. Lived your “Lord of Destruction” example when I grouped students and had to say “Sara and John work with Lucifer”. It was hard not to giggle. He was happy with his name because it was dark and he was kind of a gothic kid who stood out from the others in class.

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