Do I really need an English name? What's wrong with using my own name? Why do so many language learners choose to name themselves in English?
In this article, we answer whether we really must have an English name and, for those who do, discover the best way to choose one and the biggest mistakes to avoid.
Do I need an English name?
The short answer is ‘no’.
The name that your parents gave you at birth is as much a part of your identity as your personality, qualifications and skills. There is nothing wrong with entering the workplace in an English-speaking country and introducing yourself with your own name.
Why choose an English name?
There are many reasons that lead some learners to decide to choose an English name, including:
- a fear that native English speakers may have difficulty pronouncing their name
- a belief that having an English name can be a sign of education in the learner’s country
- a belief that having a new name in the second language can help in building a cultural identity.
Reason 1 is perhaps the most common reason. It's possible that English speakers may have difficulty pronouncing your name, especially if your name comes from a non-European language. As such, you’ll need to be able to accept that some people who you haven’t met before may get it wrong it from time to time. But as long as you take the time to say your name slowly, one sound at a time, you’ll find that most speakers will be able to pronounce it quite well .
Reason 2 is perhaps more common with younger English learners who are living in their home country. It seems less important for those who are already living abroad and has nothing to do with actually learning English.
Reason 3 is, in my opinion, the most valuable argument for language learners. For many people, language learning involves much more than learning new words, grammar and ways to communicate. For these people, it also includes cultural behavior, habits and attitudes. The most successful language learners are perhaps those whose sense of personal identity is more flexible and able to adapt. For example, everyone has a natural way of moving their tongue, jaw and mouth, built over years and years of speaking their native language. Learners who show a greater ability to adapt to uncomfortable, foreign mouth positions are more likely to pronounce these sounds naturally.
Another example from my own experience of living in Beijing, involves the use of gestures. After a couple of years of study, without thinking, I found myself beginning to say 'aya' (啊呀) at times of frustration or surprise. And with this, naturally, came a sharp breath of air, eye roll and waving of arms.
These cultural and spoken behaviours, when unfamiliar to our own cultural background and speech patterns, take a learner out of the comfort zone of their mother culture and into a strange, foreign zone of discomfort. Learners who are better able to bear this discomfort are more likely to become more natural communicators.
Could you become a fluent English speaker with a full sense of the language and culture without using an English name?
But many language learners believe that taking on a new name can be a liberating experience and may help them achieve this goal.
If you have decided you’d like to have an English name, read on for advice on how to choose one.
How NOT to choose an English name
You should assume that you’ll keep this name for life, so you should take care to pick one that you like the sound or meaning of and also check that the name is culturally acceptable.
Here are some English names that I have seen students choose that I don’t recommend:
- Group A - Scissors, Stone, Summer/Sunny (for a man), Easy, Vascular
- Group B - Girabbit, Winnex
- Group C - Chandler, Hermione, Kobe, Daenerys/Khaleesi
Let's look at why I don't recommend these.
Group A are words taken from the English language that are not used as names in English-speaking countries. These examples were all chosen by Chinese students, often because the meaning or pronunciation of these English words were similar to their own Chinese names.
- 'Scissors' and 'Stone' are everyday objects and not used as English names
- 'Vascular' was chosen because the word is related to the student’s work – heart surgery
- 'Summer' and 'Sunny' are generally female names in English (although 'Sonny' is a male name with the same pronunciation). 'Easy' really isn't an English name and suggests that the person is easily available for sex!
While Chinese names are generally chosen from common words in the Chinese language, English first names are not chosen like this – instead, they are usually picked from a list of traditional names based on their sound, meaning or in memory of a beloved relative or family friend.
Picking a name in a different way ignores the cultural background of the second language and threatens to cause embarrassment, surprise or offence.
Group B names have been created by combining two English words:
- Girabbit - giraffe and rabbit
- Winnex - Windows and Linux
While they are certainly creative names and may help describe the person's interests or background, this is also not a traditional way of choosing a name in English. If an interviewer feels that you haven’t taken the task of choosing a name seriously, then they may also question your ability to take work seriously.
Group C includes names of famous and fictional people. These names are fairly uncommon, which means that they are easily recognisable. If you would like to choose a name like this, be aware that many native speakers will immediately know where the name comes from when you introduce yourself. It’s possible that your name will bring up memories of these people every time they see you. You might not think this is a bad thing and indeed there are many native English speakers who name their children after famous people. However, there's a difference. You are naming yourself, not your child, so your choice clearly tells people you meet that you feel your identity is similar to this person in some way.
Popular names - then and now 1, 2
* includes data for England and Wales only
How to choose an English name
‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’.
So how do Western parents choose names for their children?
English names include a 'first name' and a 'surname' (the family name). Parents do not choose a surname for the child, only the first name and sometimes a 'middle name'.
When choosing an English name, parents often pick up a book of baby names and research their meanings. They'll often say the name aloud next to the surname to see if it sounds good. They may also prefer to choose a name that begins with a specific letter. Some parents prefer a more common name for their child while others prefer a less usual name.
The popularity of English names changes over time, with names going in and out of fashion across several generations. This influences how an adult should choose their own English name, as we'll see below.
Here are some steps to choosing a suitable English name:
- Check out this excellent Baby Name Finder (www.huggies.com.au/baby-names), which allows you to search for names by gender, origin, meaning or first letter. They also have categories of names if you’re looking for something ‘interesting’, ‘religious’, ‘unusual’ or ‘unique’. The ‘interesting’ category is subdivided into popular names by decade from the 1960s upwards – so, if you were born in the 1980s, go to the ‘1980s’ section in order to choose a name that would sound authentic for your generation.
- Create a list of names that you like the sound or meaning of. Do they sound nice when said before your surname?
- Give your list to an English teacher or a native English speaker and ask their opinion before deciding. They should be able to tell you how to pronounce it and whether it sounds nice next to your surname.
- Wear your name with pride in English conversations and have fun experimenting with your newest extension to your cultural identity.
Do you feel the need to choose an English name or do you prefer to use your own name?
Let us know by leaving a comment below.
Office for National Statistics (UK) - https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/livebirths/bulletins/babynamesenglandandwales/previousReleases
2 Social Security Administration (US) - https://www.ssa.gov/OACT/babynames/
this article is really helpful , I really need to choose an English name . The reason is quite simple : im French and my name is a swear word in English .
So thanks for the advices 😉
Oh no! Another great reason to choose something more appropriate. Glad you found the article helpful!
Thanks Hugh for a really informative and well composed article. Surely it’s helpful for many seeking to find an appropriate name for themselves or their child.
I though looked up your write-up for another reason.
One of their uglier fights Chancellor John V Atlee and his son Professor N. Ray Atlee had been over his middle name N for Nathan, after the general and son’s decision to drop it altogether, plow through life simply as Ray.
It would have been still magnificent if tradition of naming and choosing middle English names too was included.
This is a very good analysis. I am an immigrant from an Asian country ( but not from China) to a country which has English as its first language. The reason I am looking for an English name is reason 3 you have given. But also because I want to shed my cultural baggage from my home country, and not be constantly seen as someone different and weird to the people of the new country. I can’t change the way I look and talk ( no matter how hard I try), but maybe I can change my name.. Nationalists at home will disagree, but if you are a nationalist, stay at home and don’t emigrate.
Thanks for sharing your experience!
I don’t think it’s so unusual to want to feel accepted in a new country. We do this in all walks of life. For example, when growing up and mixing with kids at school, we tend to mirror our peers in the way we dress, act, talk and much more. We often do this without thinking. There’s a world of difference between the way I talk and behave with my peers to how I would talk with my grandparents, for instance.
Personally, I feel that it’s natural for people to take on a range of slightly varied identities or personas throughout their lifetimes. Adding one more when trying to fit in in a foreign country doesn’t seem that out of the ordinary.
However, I’d also add that, for me, developing a new ‘cultural identity’ doesn’t necessarily mean rejecting your home country’s heritage and culture. Just as we slip in and out of personas as we interact with different groups of people in regular life, we’ll continue to do so as we experiment, play around with and develop a new cultural persona.
The culture, heritage, history and traditions of our upbringing will never truly leave us. They’re a part of us and will always be there, ready to share among willing ears.
Oh Hugh! Fantastic article as always!and surprising . Changing my name ? It’s probably the last thing that might have been get in my mind really. I believe that our names have a vibes!, The vibes are coming from us,our thoughts,our behaviour,our energy.We are giving the meaning of our names I’m sure it works like this. My name Is sort of international type of name, although in the other countries it’s usually Yolanda..My mum gave me the name in honour to the Saint patron of the day I was born at.
What about the native speakers we are hoping to meet or work with?
Well….if we are half decent person, we are fair, we are kind we are treating other people that way we want to be treated,they probably will learn how to pronounce our name very quickly or will give us some lovely nickname in the blink of the eye ! So guys ! Be proud of the name your parents gave you from the bottom of their hearts.
Glad you enjoyed the article Jola! You raised a good point about having a more ‘international’ name, which is quite common across many European languages that share linguistic roots. In these examples, learners sometimes alter the spelling and/or pronunciation to the English form.
Thanks for flying the flag for the ‘be proud crowd’!
It’d be great to hear from other learners who have decided to take on an English name too – why did you choose to and how do you feel when using it?
Great article! I really have the urge to ask a lot of my colleagues/friends to have a good read on this article and hopefully they will realize how imapproriate their names are (lol)
Thanks Vera! A little bit of cultural background knowledge goes a long way…