Correctly Pronouncing Names in the Classroom: From a First Generation Vietnamese American

Naomi Thanh Nhan Vuong

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”  – Nelson Mandela


My full name is Naomi Thanh Nhan Vuong.

Thanh means blue.

Nhan means serenity.

Vuong means king.

To a native English speaker, it is a farrago of twisting vowels, a series of incoherent, cacophonous syllables that provoke questioning expressions of raised eyebrows and perplexed glances.

My parents are Vietnamese Americans who had desired to instill the traces of their culture and past within my identity as a first generation Vietnamese American. My name serves as a reminder of the lush, vibrant history of my culture, and more importantly, the significance of the heritage of my family and the laborious obstacles that my parents had to overcome to be where they are today.

I am no stranger to the constant mumblings, mispronounced vowels, hasty misspellings, or at worst, annoyed glances and irritated sighs from new teachers and students alike when they ask how to spell or repeat my name for the third time.

I have learned to value my name, and appreciate what it represents to my identity and what it means to my culture.

It is clear that contemporary issues of stigmas against those whom society chooses to call different still persistently coexist along with the repulsive hate crimes and abhorrent acts of discrimination that comes along with them.

In one recent incident, Emily Huynh, a Cleveland high school senior, took action against a delivery company when they sent her father, whose native language is Vietnamese, a derogatory email declining him a job opportunity due to the fact that the English language is not his native tongue. According to the Seattle Times, Huynh asserts that “[she] grew up here, and [she knows] about racism, and [she knows] what’s happening here right now”. These vile acts of discrimination has festered into a culture that demonstrates intolerance and the failure of understanding to those society deems different.

That needs to change, starting with behaviors that are rooted in the classroom during adolescence.

According to the National Education Center Statistics, there are approximately 4.5 million English learning students in American public schools, some of which whom belong to immigrant families, who bring vast diversity and culture into communities. It is therefore imperative that students in all academic settings are self-aware of their own interpretations of others and recognize the value of constructing an inclusive and respectful classroom atmosphere to students of all different ethnicities and cultures. As students in contemporary society, we are obligated to eradicate microaggressions in the classroom, and therefore eliminate the stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination that coexist with them. This simple action of being obligated to foster understanding with culturally different students develops security and inclusivity in classroom environments, which are imperative for students to have in an atmosphere that encourages them to take risks in the course of their paths in education. The establishment of a culture that fosters the obligation to try to pronounce the names of all students correctly within the atmosphere of an academic classroom is crucial to student’s overall emotional well-being, which established the baseline for them before they form different types of relationships with other people.

According to PBS, Michelle-Thuy Ngoc, a junior attending Downtown College Prep Alum Rock High School located in San Jose, describes her name as “a reminder of hope” which represents “where [she] comes from”.  She is one of the many students supporting “My Name, My Identity” a national campaign that emphases the societal importance of correctly pronouncing all names and acknowledging the vast diverse spectrum of culture.

The “My Name, My Identity”  campaign formed as a partnership between the Santa Clara, California, County Office of Education, the National Association of Bilingual Education, and the California Association for Bilingual Education. The campaign’s initiative is to focus on the idea that an individual’s name represents so much more that a word someone is called by. Names have a significant impact on the sense of an individual’s identity. According to PBS, “it’s one of the first things children recognize, one of the first words they learn to say, it’s how the world identifies them”.

Misspellings and the negligence to try to correctly pronounce one’s name is reminds them of the physical barriers that society often tries to enclose around whom they deem different. These are corrosive actions that echoes the practices of hate and discrimination,both of which are already painfully evident in academic atmospheres. According to Rita Kohli, an assistant professor of University of California in Riverside graduate school of education, “if they’re encountering teachers who are not taking the time to learn their name or don’t validate who [the students] are, it starts to create this wall” (PBS). The mere behavior of having the respect for someone to learn to pronounce their name appropriately shatters the seemingly impenetrable boundaries that separates students from one another and spurs trust and acceptance, which function as a security blanket for all students who are encouraged to learn new concepts.

The simple culture of pronouncing individuals names appropriately celebrates differences, and breaks through the walls of stigma that will eventually flourish into acceptance within the boundaries of academic institutions. To many students, having their culture and identity accepted allows them to gain the confidence and the feeling of acceptance and inclusivity is registered, allowing them to take risks in learning concepts foreign to their own. Furthermore, constructing this practice of inclusivity cultivates the behavior of acceptance in the classroom, and paves the way for the message of tolerance eradicating the corrosive behaviors of hate and prejudice long before they take root. It does this by facilitating the understanding of someone’s past and identity, thus allowing them to have the the initiative to understand others through communication.

Names are the bridges that connect students from past to their future, from their culture to their home. We, as students, are obligated to recognize that understanding this connection sustains the bridge that connects us all in a contemporary society of multiculturalism where diversity is an undeniably essential value.


– Naomi Vuong