My daughter Katherine was engrossed in a book at the dentist’s office. “Come on up, Katie!” the dentist called out to her. She continued reading, oblivious. “Katie, your turn,” he repeated. Thankfully, she looked up at that moment and I subtly motioned her over to the dentist’s chair, ignoring his assumption that she went by the nickname Katie.
These situations can be awkward, yet they happen often – especially at the beginning of the school year with teachers learning their students’ names and kids being introduced to new faces. Particularly for those with unusual names, conveying correct pronunciation is a challenge all its own. But with a few tricks, kids can be armed to confidently speak up about their name and learn how to say unfamiliar names of those they meet.
Getting their own names across
Remind your child to speak loudly and clearly when stating her name. Encourage her to repeat it if others don’t catch it at first.
Help your child appreciate her name.
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Elizabeth Bojang, founder of hearnames.com, a website dedicated to audio pronunciations of names, encourages parents to prepare their children emotionally for mispronunciations by emphasizing what makes their name special. “My daughter’s name (Nyima, pronounced ‘nee-muh’) is often mispronounced when people look at the spelling. But I’ve shared with her how important her name is, why we chose it and about her namesake who bore the name before her. She is proud of her name and so far is comfortable quietly correcting others when the situation calls for it.”
Find a mnemonic device
Find a mnemonic device your child can use to aid others, like a rhyming word (for example: My last name rhymes with “paprika”). In other cases, a word picture can make an unusual name easier to remember. Bojang suggests something like what she uses for the Vietnamese surname, Nguyen (pronounced “win”): “Imagine that they like to ‘win.’ Picture them smiling after winning. Or jumping up and down, saying, ‘Win!'”
Spell out the name
Susie Higgins, a school speech pathologist from Kansas, recommends having the child spell out her name if she’s old enough. Some names sound very similar to others and can be easily confused (like Alec and Alex, or Stephanie and Bethany). A simple spelling can clear up any uncertainty.
Give them a nickname
If encountering mispronunciations is traumatic for your child, consider giving him a nickname (for instance, Aristoteles becomes “Telly” for short).
If they don’t like a nickname
If others try to label your child with a nickname she doesn’t use or care for, explain to your child that she may request not to be called that. Teach them to say, “I prefer to be called ___. Thank you.”
Give their teacher a phonetic pronunciation
In school, take advantage of teachers’ requests for special info to clue them in on your child’s name. Provide the phonetic pronunciation, or emphasize the name your child goes by if it’s different than the name you registered them under. Your child may still need to correct the teacher, but you’ve paved the way for them.
Learning tricky names
- Train your child to be a good listener who makes eye contact. Sometimes seeing the words formed on the other person’s lips offers clues to the pronunciation that can be otherwise missed.
- Have your children repeat back what they think they heard if it sounds odd to them. Chances are it’s a common name that got garbled in translation.
- If you find your child continually tripping over the name of a classmate or teacher, check out some handy websites that offer assistance, such as hearnames.com or pronouncenames.com. These sites offer recorded or phonetic pronunciations of regularly misheard or difficult-to-say names.
- As with many things in parenting, modeling helps. Take advantage of social situations where you and your child are meeting new people to demonstrate these pronunciation tricks. Then afterward, stop to point out what you did and how it helped.
‘Dos’ for saying unusual names
- Repeat it back, multiple times if necessary.
- Ask the person if you got it correct. He or she will appreciate your efforts, even if you didn’t.
- Ask the origin of the name. It can sometimes help you understand the pronunciation and may work as a recall aid.
‘Don’ts’ for saying unusual names
- Substitute another, similar name. A Laurie is not a Laura. Nor is she a Lauren.
- Mumble. It can come across as careless or, worse, disrespectful.
- Avoid saying their name. You may hope the individual won’t notice, but if they do, it appears thoughtless.
- Be embarrassed if you have to ask the person to repeat his name. Desiring to get it right shows that you care.
- Comment negatively on how unusual the name is. Chances are, they already know.
Teaching your child how to negotiate the pronunciation of unfamiliar names (whether his own or others) will provide him with a valuable social skill. And as our communities become more and more global, you’ll find it’s a skill he’ll use for life.
One final tip: if you’ve got a tongue-twister of a last name, take it easy on the little people in your life and go with something short, like Mrs. K.
This post was originally published in 2013 and has been updated for 2016.