The University of Iowa

Professors Get Schooled on Pronouncing Chinese Students’ Names

August 22nd, 2014

From The Wall Street Journal

This week, faculty and staff at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business are learning how to welcome incoming Chinese students—by correctly pronouncing their names.

As Chinese students make up a larger share of student bodies at U.S. colleges—and comprise a large majority of the 20% international enrollment at Tippie—administrators are making cultural adjustments smoother on campus, with special orientations for Chinese students, multicultural food events and Chinese-language coaching for professors and staff.

Tippie started offering that training to faculty about a year and a half ago, in the form of a 90-minute crash course in a large group setting. Starting last fall, the school’s Judith R. Frank Business Communications Center, which provides students with support for writing and speaking assignments, offered one-on-one training for faculty to help them figure out how to address all their students in class, during academic advising sessions or just when passing them in the halls.

In this week’s sessions, teachers and administrators are reviewing class rosters with a native Chinese speaker who instructs them how to pronounce “X,” “Q” and other commonly confused sounds. They can also get a copy of a cheat sheet listing common Chinese surnames and the meaning of popular first names.

Pamela Bourjaily, director of Tippie’s business communications center, says Chinese students aren’t always accustomed to volunteering their opinions in class, so professors must call on them directly. Addressing them correctly helps put the students at ease.

The rise in Chinese enrollment has been rapid: across the university, 2,266 Chinese students enrolled in the 2013-2014 academic year, up from 537 in the 2007-2008 year.

Lon Moeller says he made a lot of apologies to Asian students after learning just how badly he had butchered their names in class and during advising sessions.

“I get sensitive about my name, too,” says Moeller, now associate provost of undergraduate education at University of Iowa and a former associate dean at the business school. “I’ve been doing to students exactly what drives me nuts.” (For the record, Moeller pronounces his last name “MOE-ler,” like the tooth.)

Mispronouncing someone’s name can be embarrassing, and even offensive in some cases.

“It makes it much more difficult to establish trust” if one party doesn’t try to say the other’s name correctly, says Greg Hundley, director of the Center for International Business Education and Research at Purdue University.

That school enrolled 4,323 Chinese students in fall 2013, up from 797 a decade earlier. Purdue introduced a language-training program for faculty last year and is planning another such session soon, according to Hundley. Pronouncing a student’s name correctly “reflects respect, empathy and interest,” all crucial for cross-cultural relationships, he says.

Bungling a name can also signal a lack of sophistication in the speaker, says Erin Meyer, a professor of organizational behavior at Insead.

Many Chinese prefer to be addressed by strangers with their family name rather than with their given first name, which is reserved for close friends and family. The letter “J” trips people up, too, as it’s pronounced like a “Y” for people of Dutch backgrounds, a “J” for Portuguese names and an “H” for those of Spanish descent.

“The best protocol is simply to ask,” says Meyer, who specializes in cross-cultural management and intercultural negotiations.

Though phonetically confusing names exist in all cultures, schools are focusing on Chinese pronunciation because of the sheer number of Chinese students that now sit in their classrooms. China is the No. 1 country of origin for international students in the U.S. Nearly 236,000 students from China were studying in the U.S. in the 2012-2013 academic year, according to the Institute of International Education, a 21% increase over the prior year.

This spring, a career services officer and China native at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business distributed a pronunciation guide to colleagues. For example, it explains, “Yuan” is pronounced like the United Nation’s abbreviation, while “Tao” sounds like the first syllable of “towel.”

Those pronunciation guides may help at the start of the school year, but refresher courses can come in handy as graduation nears, too, as deans gear up for diploma ceremonies in which they must—correctly—pronounce every student’s name.