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Posted on Sun, Jun 27, 2010 : 6:12 a.m.

How do you pronounce your name again? Again?

By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

At King Elementary School’s fifth-grade graduation, Ms. Shah paused before she read the name of the last student. She confessed, “I’ve been practicing this all day. The kids have been helping me.” Then she proudly announced the name of a Chinese American girl with a particularly tricky surname, Xu, her face contorting with the effort of getting that \ü\ just right. Then she raised both arms triumphantly as the audience applauded.

She was actually pretty close. Not 100 percent, but not bad. This teacher gets great kudos for trying. Most people do not even try.

My surname is spelled “Wang,” but it is pronounced \wong\. When I was little, some people would get mad and scold that I was the one who was spelling or pronouncing my own name wrong. (Or “Wong.” Ha ha. Not funny.) The “a” in Wang is pronounced like “wander” or “want” or “wand.” Similarly, Zhang and Chang should both be pronounced something like \jhong\—more of a \j\ than a \z\, just a hint of an \h\, “a” pronounced \ah\.

My mother used to reassure me that Europeans would know how to pronounce my name right, because Europeans pronounce “a” as \ah\.

So I was completely heartbroken when a handsome English friend who had been calling me \frahnces\ oh so sweetly with such a cute accent suddenly added on a short "a" Wang to the end of it. Ouch.

So I always tell people, “My name is Frances Wong, spelled W-A-N-G, \wong\.” That looks funny in print, but can you hear it? I think it is important to teach others how to pronounce our names the right way, as well as take the time to learn how to pronounce their names correctly. It is a sign of respect … and self-respect.

Sometimes people will ask, “But what about that guy? He pronounces it Wang (with a short 'a').” I tell them that that poor fellow has simply given up the fight. In Mandarin, there is no short "a" sound in "ang". It is pronounced \wong\. (“Wong” spelled with an “o” is actually a completely different surname, written with a completely different Chinese character, pronounced \wong\ in Cantonese and \hwang\ in Mandarin—but that is another story.)

I acknowledge that some names really are hard to get your mouth around. Xu for example. The \ü\ sound is pronounced like a cross between \shooo\ and \sh-ewww\. Apparently German speakers can pronounce that one.

I also know that tones are really hard for speakers of non-tonal languages to even hear, let alone speak.

Then there are the long, winding, multisyllabic or multiconsonant names, whether Thai or Indian or Japanese or Italian or Polish.

And do not get me started on names that are shortened into caricatures or turned into jokes to make them easier to remember.

As I tell the kids, “That is not a weird name, it is just a name you are not used to. If you lived in Malaysia or Turkey, you would think ‘Ashley’ or ‘Tiffany’ were weird names.”

At Clague Middle School’s eighth-grade graduation, the last advisory teacher to walk on stage and read the names of his graduating students read the names with a certain confidence and swagger, the long multisyllabic names from all around the world and the beautiful rolled “r’s” all tripped off his tongue smooth and velvet. It was a pleasure to hear the beautiful names as beautiful names, and without any hesitation. I got the sense that this teacher really knew his students. I wonder if they appreciated that he took the time to learn how to pronounce their names.

I did.

(This article has been revised to fix an html formatting error.)

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang will be taking a short break from her "Adventures in Multicultural Living" to work on a book project this summer. Look for her column to continue in September.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Ann Arbor and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is editor of Asian American Village, lead multicultural contributor for, and a contributor for New America Media's Ethnoblog. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website at, her blog at, and she can be reached at


Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Sun, Aug 29, 2010 : 9:36 a.m.

Just found this hysterical old clip on from a British comedy show, "you english with your complicated names." the perfect complement to the recent NYT article that people do not feel the pressure to Anglicize their names anymore compared to generations past.


Wed, Jul 7, 2010 : 6:16 p.m.

I like to be charitable and assume that most people want to pronounce names correctly. If they don't pronounce mine right, I'll correct and spell it for them. What can really piss me off are the people who, even after being corrected several times, still insist on calling you some other name because it's easier for them. I don't mean that they simply keep pronouncing your name wrong, I mean they give you an entirely new name. Mine, for some reason, happens to be Chelsea.


Mon, Jun 28, 2010 : 9:50 a.m.

I used to work in a Multicultural Kindergarten. When the teacher and I had gotten the pronunciation of their little names right, we'd write the phonetic spelling above their names on the roll call sheet. This way when there was a sub, he or she could identify them correctly instead of writing them in as absent! On a side note, I have a Vietnamese friend who spells his last name Nguyen. He pronounces it Noo-yen. One of the kids in my class also spelled her name that way, but pronounced it Win. It took me a long time to get that right as it was natural for me to say it Noo-yen because I had known my friend a long time. When I saw Nguyen on the roll call sheet my mouth just went into Noo-yen mode.


Mon, Jun 28, 2010 : 7:22 a.m.

its sometimes hard to get around the sounds of another language, and tolerance for that is a sign of maturity.. i remember that during the iranian hostage-taking in 1979, when the revolutionary government was changing personell...and lying up a storm...on a minute by minute basis even grand old media icon walter cronkite couldn't get his tongue arond who was who. one typically/ particularly mendacious spokesman...ghotbzadeh ( actually pronouced phlegm-tb-zaDEH)...came out of cronkites mouth as 'goatsbody'..


Sun, Jun 27, 2010 : 9:31 p.m.

Yes, we Americans are always expected to be all things to all people. My Japanese associates pronounce my name in a way that makes sense in their language. Some of them have lived here for 20 years and I can't imagine trying to correct them. I don't find it offensive or disrespectful at all. There are other ways to show interest in and respect for someone that don't involve struggling to pronounce sounds that feel completely awkward and aren't going to come out right anyway. Reading names at a graduation ceremony is different and I have heard that schools put a lot of effort into pronouncing names the way the students want them to be pronounced. That's Ann Arbor!


Sun, Jun 27, 2010 : 9:09 p.m.

And I suppose, Ms. Wang, that when I am in China (which I frequently am), I should be offended and consider it a matter of disrespect that my Chinese colleagues--even those I have worked with for a long time--are unable to pronounce my name correctly. I don't; however, I always apologize when I find myself unable to create the correct tones to pronounce their names properly. I think they understand.


Sun, Jun 27, 2010 : 1:30 p.m.

Pronunciation changes as names enter new surroundings. If it didn't, we'd still be saying day-TWAH and bell-VEAL.


Sun, Jun 27, 2010 : 11:05 a.m.

basic sure other co-jones feel the same way.

Basic Bob

Sun, Jun 27, 2010 : 10:20 a.m.

English people (and many Canadians) use the short-a sound in many foreign words such as pasta - they pronounce it like pass-ta. What I like is when people ask me how to smell my last name. Usually it is because they were not listening - it is J-O-N-E-S.


Sun, Jun 27, 2010 : 8:05 a.m.

Before I got married, I used to be able to use the pronunciation of my (Ellis-Island-adjusted) Hungarian last name to screen out telemarketers. Can't do that with my English married name, and sometimes I miss it. I agree with your point about correct pronunciation as a sign of respect.