Do people mispronounce your name? Students hope new audio tool will end the name game

Growing up in Canada as a young woman from India, Sheetal Vemannagari struggled with embracing her name. 

The now 20-year-old Ivey Business School student went through what thousands of Canadians experience when their name is deemed “tough” to pronounce for the average anglophone — from accepting a shortened version to trying to anglicize it in an attempt to avoid embarrassment.

“I hated the way that my culture hindered me from sort of connecting with my peers, especially my name, because I feel like everyone would just call me just ‘shit-all’ … [When mispronounced], my name sounds harsh, kind of unfeminine and so that further dissociated me from my identity.”

In Hindi, Vemannagari’s name, pronounced as ‘SHEE-thul,’ means ‘cool breeze’ and was chosen by her grandmother.

Vemannagari said reclaiming her name helped her embrace her culture. (Submitted by Sheetal Vemannagari)

It wasn’t until a trip to India two years ago when Vemannagari started to reclaim her name after receiving many compliments for it. 

The remaining challenge is getting people to pronounce it correctly, but Vemannagari is hopeful that a new online tool will help with that problem, at least in the classroom setting.

Western University’s Ivey Business School in London, Ont. is one of four Canadian post-secondary institutions, along with Ryerson University, the University of Guelph and Simon Fraser University, to adopt NameCoach.

The auto-name pronunciation tool allows people to make an audio recording of their name which is then made available on their academic profile, allowing classmates and professors to play the recording and learn how to pronounce the person’s name correctly.

Why it’s important to get names right

“The name is really a symbol of your identity. It’s a kind of stand-in for the person, so if I’m calling your name, I’m really calling you … so getting it right has to do with that level of respect for the person,” said Karen Pennesi, a linguistic anthropologist and associate professor at Western University. 

Pennesi said people with uncommon names tend to have different relationships with their names throughout their life, including changing it and then coming back to it at a later point in life, but regardless of where people are at it’s important to get their preferred name right.

“It’s a kind of a challenge to their sense of self [when you start anglicizing or shortening their name]. That makes them not be in control of the of their own identity, their own self.” 

For marginalized people the mistreatment of their name can have long-term implications, Pennesi added. 

“They’re constantly being made to feel that they don’t belong or that they shouldn’t be here and that their contributions aren’t worthwhile.”

After reclaiming her name, trying to ensure it was pronounced right caused Vemannagari frustration, embarrassment and even made her feel like she was asking for too much.

“I didn’t want to make a big deal of it, especially in a class, but one day I corrected my professor. Ever since I did that, every time they called on me, I don’t think they meant to do this, but they just made it a really big deal and would be like, ‘oh, wait, what’s your name?,’ ‘It’ll be the end of the year and I still have to pause to say your name’ … It made me feel like I was being demanding.” 

Vemannagari said her professor eventually stopped asking for her input and it led to her not wanting to try to participate either, which impacted her mark at the end of the term.

It was feedback similar to Vemannagari’s experience that prompted Ivey to make a $10,000 annual investment in NameCoach this October, said Stephanie Brooks, the school’s chief administrative officer.

“It matters that we get the most personal aspect of a student right, which is how to pronounce their name. When you take the time to get it right it confirms to a student that they matter and that they belong here. When you don’t, it’s easy to see how it can unintentionally signal the opposite,” she said. 

Respect for a person’s name an important step toward inclusivity, students say

Western University’s Ethnocultural Support Services (ESS), a group that advocate for the appreciation of different cultures on campus, highlighted the issue of the mispronunciation of names at the beginning of the school year through its own social media campaign.

“We’ve heard from an overwhelming influx of students speaking about the importance and significance of their name and how it connects them to their culture, their heritage and their ancestors,” said Matthew Dawkins, a second-year student and the ESS coordinator. 

“I think if we started to view names as this badge of honour, then I think we can go along with respecting that a lot more and to make the conscious effort to pronounce it right and to learn it right.” 

It’s these little things about cultural and racial sensitivity that teaches other students and staff how to be cognizant of people who are from different backgrounds.– Mubasshira Khalid, Ivey Business School Master’s student.

Allan Muriuki, the third-year student who led the campaign, said getting a person’s name right is one of the first steps to creating an inclusive campus.

“When we talk about inclusively we talk about using the correct pronunciation of people’s name because we know those names mean something to people,” he said. “Not using their name correctly leads them to feel belittled or not included when going about their lives.”  

Mubasshira Khalid, a Master’s student at Ivey who is often asked by people if they can shorten her name, said that while institutions often look for radical ways to address racism and discrimination, it’s meaningful and necessary to address smaller items like names.

“Often it’s these little things about cultural and racial sensitivity that teaches other students and staff how to be cognizant of people who are from different backgrounds, so I think addressing the need to get names right is an excellent step forward.”

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