Why it is important to pronounce foreign names correctly

Australia is increasingly a multicultural nation, with more Australians from non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB). This presents a challenge – understanding how to pronounce non-Anglo names. We have people from all over the world – Vietnamese, Maltese, Hungarian, Indian, Pasifika, Arabic-speaking nations – you get the idea. Everyone has their unique name, and at first, it can be difficult to pronounce a person’s name correctly. Each language has its peculiarities.

However, Mr Aussie Larrikin, if you keep on mispronouncing a person’s name because it is ‘too foreign’ or difficult’ for you, then that is not only frustrating, but arrogantly disrespectful. Your intellectual laziness in failing to make an effort is not an excuse.

Ever since I can remember, my name has been the subject of numerous butcherings. It has been dismissed as too ‘difficult’, and I have been assigned nicknames for which I never asked. And that is just my first name.

Christine Afoa is a writer of Pasifika background. She wrote that among the Australian National Rugby League (NRL) competition, about 45% of the players are of Pasifika origin. It is not uncommon to hear names like Hopoate, Taupau, Takairangi, Papalii, Matagi – just to name a few examples. Back in the 1980s, it was not unusual to hear the names Peponis, Raudonikis, and so on.

Returning to Afoa’s story; sitting watching the NRL with her boyfriend and his mates, the football commentators came across the Pasifika name Yee-Huang ‘Young’ Tonumaipea. The commentators chortled, made noises, and subsequently referred to the player as ‘Mr Alphabet’. Her boyfriend and mates laughed and mocked his name throughout the match.

A person’s name is an integral part of their identity. Multiculturalism should be teaching us respect for each other’s cultural backgrounds. It is one thing to have a sense of humour; it is quite another to wilfully mispronounce a person’s foreign name, placing the onus back on the individual for being ‘difficult.’

Am I suggesting that you have a volcanic eruption of anger every time someone mispronounces your name? No, of course not. Does wrongly pronouncing your name automatically make the other person a racist? No, it does not. However, Mr Larrikin who thinks they are being hilariously funny or defying social conventions, mocking a person’s name, and not understanding where they originate from, is infuriating to the extreme.

My name is Armenian in origin, and both my parents are from Egypt. Yes, that’s right, Armenians are not ethnically Arabs. They have spread out across the Middle Eastern nations because of historical persecution, asylum seeking and migration. Yes, Egypt – the place you think of as the land of the pharaohs, Tutankhamen, the curse of the mummy, and Charlton Heston leading Hebrew slaves out of captivity – contains different nationalities.

Understanding foreign names is the first and large step in understanding other nationalities and cultures. When the Vietnamese refugees began arriving in Australia in the late 1970s and 80s, they were actually putting the new policy of multiculturalism to its first important test. Australia had strongly supported, and participated in, the American attack on Vietnam. When the US-supported Saigon regime was on the brink of defeat, policy planners in Canberra correctly predicted an outflow of refugees.

Confronting the negative public sentiment, the Vietnamese made Australia their new home. They did not simply forget their home nation, or abandon their language and culture en masse. They made the effort to settle in, all the while facing the uphill cultural battle to integrate into a predominant Anglo society. While the political beliefs of the Saigon loyalist refugees may be questionable, their presence in our society should never be disputed.

Vietnamese Australians make up 1.1% of the Australian population, and 3.5% of Australia’s overseas-born population. They have shown resilience through tough times, and the least we can do is make the effort to pronounce their names correctly.

The dissolution of the Soviet bloc, and the declaration of independence by various former Soviet republics (such as Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan) has increased the pool of nations from which there has been an outflow of refugees and migrants. This has produced a whole new level of foreign names to be assimilated into the Anglophone world.

Ok, even before the Soviet breakup, we had to learn the name of the last foreign minister of the USSR – Eduard Shevardnadze. Yes, a non-Russian rose to one of the highest positions in the Soviet presidium. The first post-communist president of Georgia? Zviad Gamsakhurdia. America’s favourite Georgian politician in the recent past? Mikhail Saakashvili. So the issue of pronouncing foreign names is not going away.

So, for a start, let’s make a conscious effort to learn and pronounce each other’s names correctly. Better understanding leads to improved communication and shared visions for the future.

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