One peculiarity about Chinese ESL learners is that they usually want “English” names. Back when I was learning French, I didn’t take to calling myself Jean-marc; when I was learning Japanese, I didn’t call myself Taka. I just used my English name phoneticized into Katakana. I saw no need to change my name to learn a new language. Maybe I’d change the pronunciation, but no more. Most of my foreign friends from back when I was in the states were the same. Try telling my Japanese buddy Tomohiro that he should adopt an English name, like Tom and he’ll tell you he’s Japanese and that Tomo’s his name. The same went for my other friends, Yoshi, Naoki, Tadashi, Tomohiko, and even the notoriously unpronounceable Ryuta.
Chinese people aren’t like that. To suggest to a mother that she just allow her child to be called 專文 (zhuān wén) in my class, is blasphemy. She’ll insist that without a proper “English” name, the chance to “soak American culture” just won’t be the same. I’ve heard this opinion from dozens of parents. Heck, I even saw one kid who didn’t want an English name get in a yelling match with his dad over it. Nearly all the kids want English names, though. Some even want two.
Naturally enough, a lot of the “English” names they pick aren’t very English at all. I don’t think I ever met or heard of a single Coco before I came to Taiwan (though I did know a dog named Cocoa), but I must have taught or met at least 30 Cocos since coming here. The same goes for Kiki, Yoyo, Mimi, and several other popular “English” names here. I’m not really a big fan of these names, since they AREN’T going to familiarize the kids with commonly used English names. But, hey. If it makes them happy, then why not?
There is one kind of “English” name, though, that I can’t stand. It’s the mis-spelt name given by Taiwanese teachers from the public schools. My new students of this type have included an Anterny, a Cynphia, an Avy, a Jesper, a Weever, a San, and a Weanston. The problem with these “English” names, beyond the fact that they aren’t English, is that English speakers (including myself) always think that the kids are mispronouncing real names. I already have a lot of names to remember, and it really sucks trying to remember if Jesper is the one who insists that is name is pronounced as “Jeesper” or if it was Cynphia that insists she’s “Seenvia”. Worse yet, after practicing with each other for a few years, the kids will have the exact same problems with real English names. I don’t really want to be some sort of “cultural imperialist”, but there is a point at which I can’t take the Engrish. I sat the parents down and explained that their kids’ names were the result of letting non-natives with really screwed up phonics try to remember real names. At first they were incredulous. “Are you sure Weanston’s not a popular English name?” Fortunately, by the end, I got Cynphia to become Cynthia, Avy to become Amy, Jesper to become Jasper, Weever to become Webber, San to become Sam, and Weanston to become Winston. Anterny isn’t budging, though.
There are tons of ways to try to absorb American culture. Aside from Hollywood, there’s great access to US video games, children’s stories, American restaurants, American music… the list goes on. I’m not sure if picking an “English” name will help students assimilate any more of the culture or not, but I’m positive picking a name like “Weanston” won’t.