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This question was originally asked on Academia.Stackexchange.com. I would normally not cross-post, however, I think this question might be an exception, where both sites may provide complementary perspectives. I think cross-posting is a better option than migration in this particular case.

Most Australian universities have a large number of international students. Common countries of origin include China, Singapore, and Malaysia. When interacting with students, it's much nicer if you can learn their name and pronounce it correctly. To reduce the scope of this question, I thought I'd limit it to Chinese names, but it could be broadened to include other Asian countries.

Several challenges emerge with Chinese names for an Australian (and presumably others from North America, Europe, etc.):

  • challenges of pronunciation
  • challenges when reading a Chinese name of knowing which of name is the name to address the student by
  • challenges in remember the name. In particular, I find it difficult to remember a name that I can't pronounce. Furthermore, the less familiar I am with a name and the fewer associations I have with a name, the harder I find it is to remember.


  • How can I learn how to pronounce names of Chinese students?
  • How can I better recall names of Chinese students? e.g., get acquainted with common names, build some semantic knowledge around Chinese names.

I'd be particularly interested in any good online resources for this purpose.

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One problem associated with romanization of Chinese names is that people do it differently depending on where they are from and which dialect they speak. Chen for example, could be the romanization of a number of Chinese surnames, each with its unique pronunciation and tone. Some people prefer to use pinyin as the spelling standard and some just come up with their own random spelling. So there is no simple answer to this. Avery's answer is helpful, but it's up to you to ask each individual student. –  deutschZuid Jun 28 '12 at 23:17

3 Answers 3

up vote 2 down vote accepted

How can I learn how to pronounce names of Chinese students?

Short of learning Chinese? Avery suggested learning how to read pinyin. However, this ignores the problem that there are sounds in Chinese that do not exist in English. For instance, following some consonants, pinyin "u" is pronounced like the German "ü". Pinyin "sh" and "x" are both pronounced differently from English "sh". Oh yeah, and every syllable has a tone. So, are you prepared to learn all of that and more? If so, then Avery's answer is spot on. Go learn pinyin.

I suspect your question was more along the lines "As an English speaker in an English-speaking classroom, how can I pronounce Chinese students' names in an acceptable way?"

If that's the case, then here's my advice:

  1. Ask the student how they would like you to say their name. This is just a basic respect thing. Of course, there are a couple caveats:

    • Presumably you'd like to have an idea of how to pronounce their name before you ask them.

    • Some students (especially the stereotypical asian students) will not correct you even if you ask them to. In high school, a substitute teacher asked one of my friends--whose name is "Jie Luo"--if his name was pronounced "J.Lo". He mumbled "Yeah sure", and it was only because some other students corrected the teacher that he wasn't known as "J.Lo" for the whole week.

  2. Learn to recognize pinyin syllables and come up with English approximations to them. I'd especially focus on the syllables where the pinyin spelling is not suggestive of the English approximation. For instance:

    • The "j", "q", "x", "c", and "zh" initials
    • The "ang", "e", "en", "eng", "ui", "un", and "iu" finals
    • The syllables "zi", "ci", "si" and "zhi", "chi", "shi"

How can I better recall names of Chinese students? e.g., get acquainted with common names, build some semantic knowledge around Chinese names.

For Chinese surnames, I'd familiarize yourself with the top few names in this list, as well as their various romanizations. For instance, the names "Zhang" and "Chang" are both transliterations of the surname "张" (one in pinyin, one in the wade-giles system formerly used in Taiwan). For given names, you're pretty well out of luck. There aren't very many "common" given names. Many people's given names are unique.

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I think 1. is the easiest and most practical way to go. Note that if they have already had a lot of Western contact they'll probably give you an easy way to say their name (i.e. a non-Chinese transliteration that is close enough but not 'correct') or an English name. –  Avery Chan Jun 30 '12 at 10:39
Yep, that's often the case. –  Stumpy Joe Pete Jun 30 '12 at 10:46

• I have been studying Chinese for about three years total and I still find it difficult to remember Chinese people's names. There isn't a short cut to learning how to pronounce Chinese names; you need to learn pinyin, the Chinese phonetic system. Fortunately, it is not completely divorced from English phonetics, but there are enough differences that make learning it untrivial. Frankly, pinyin is the 'easy' part of Chinese; in pronouncing Chinese students names you won't have to deal with tones and you don't have to deal with Chinese characters. Googling 'learn pinyin' should be sufficient for you (if you're having trouble figuring out a sound, come back here and we'll try to help).

• Once you get pinyin down, it solves the pronunciation problem but still doesn't solve the recollection problem. One good thing to know is that Chinese names are at least two syllables, at most four syllables, but three syllables being the most common. Unlike English names, the surname comes first and is actually considered part of the entire name, though sometimes people will shorten that and just call someone by their given name. What this means is that the name first portion of a Chinese student's name may be their surname so just addressing a Chinese student just by what a native English speaker would consider their first name (i.e. their surname) might be strange to them. I have seen that there are certain names more popular than others, but this is more a function of being in a Chinese speaking environment daily than a practical help to remembering/recognizing names.

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Other answers would like you to learn tones: If you don't plan to learn Chinese, this is a lost fight. I would ask the students to pronounce their name even before you prononce it, and write down phonetically what I heard beside their written name, in any way that make sense to you. You could even add information about the student (tall guy), or get a picture. Like that:

HU Mingyun (Who -- Mean youn, tall smiley guy)

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