For me, the difficulties in learning Chinese have always been due to society more than linguistic details. Nowhere is this clearer than in the issues surrounding learning Chinese names. Learning to recognize names is an important part of learning any language. In many cases, recognizing which words in a sentence are names is the difference between getting the general gist of the sentence or hearing a confusing jumble.

The problem is that many Taiwanese people have a strong tendency not to use their real names with westerners. Many prefer to use “English” names with their co-workers and friends, too. The reasons for doing so are numerous and varied- it’s clear that it isn’t just for the purpose of communicating with non-Chinese speakers, though many will offer up that excuse. I’ve actually encountered office environments in companies that don’t conduct any business in English, but are still filled with employees who go by “English” names at the office. Even a lot of people who don’t do this will use their Chinese name with their friends and family, but use an English one with the westerners they know.

Unfortunately, since I don’t look Taiwanese at all, Taiwanese people are very unlikely to tell me their real names when exchanging introductions with me. A common experience of mine is to know a person only by an “English” name for months, and then to hear other friends referring to his or her real name. I often don’t realize it’s the same person. Some people that do this have said that it’s because “foreigners are bad with Chinese names”. Well, that’s probably true. It sure is hard to get “good with Chinese names” if nobody’s willing to use them with you. I realize that people can call themselves whatever they please, but I do wish people weren’t so into using “English” names. It’s taken me three years of living here to learn as many names as I learned in a year and a half of studying Japanese.

I do have a few strategies for learning names, though.

  1. When people introduce themselves with English names, always ask what their Chinese names are. Some will refuse to tell you, but others normally go by their real names anyway and will be happy you asked. You never know who might just be trying to help the poor foreigner who doesn’t appear able to remember Chinese names.
  2. When people do introduce themselves with Chinese names, be very careful to remember them. Write down the pinyin and make sure you know how to address them the next time you see them.
  3. Read about history, if you can find an easy kid’s book. However much young Taiwanese people may like to identify with English names, you can be sure that textbooks won’t be calling Sun Zhongshan, “Johnson Sun” anytime soon.
  4. Read about politics. The day Chen Shuibian starts going by “Steven Chen” will be a sad day indeed. Even politicians who do have and use English names are almost never referred to by them in Chinese publications.
  5. Watch mainland movies. Taiwanese movies and Hong Kong movies seem to be filled with people using English names. The mainland movies I’ve seen haven’t been, so far.
  6. Keep going to Chinese class. One good thing about the classes and the books at Shida is that we were all given appropriate Chinese names and we had to learn them. The characters in the books we studied all had Chinese names too. It was a good start towards getting familiarized with the most common names.

Note: I put “English” names in quotes above due to the fact that many of the most common “English” names in Taiwan aren’t even English names at all. Yoyo and Coco are two examples that spring to mind, but I’ve also met an Anterny, a San, a Weelial and a host of other people with odd names. Heck, my old dentist went by Decay. If you’re not sure which names are common, I suggest the Name Voyager. It’s got the most convenient interface of any baby name site I’ve seen. You can check the “English” names above on the voyager and see that none were in the top 1000 names in any decade after 1880. If anyone knows of a similar site for Chinese names, please post the link in a comment!