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