What’s In a Name? The Story Behind NameCoach

Praveen Shanbhag is the founder of NameCoach, a software company offering a simple and effective technical solution for the problem of name mispronunciation: users voice-record their names online so others can easily learn and remember how to say them.

In this article written for Colorín Colorado, Praveen talks about the impact of hearing one’s name mispronounced, shares the story behind NameCoach, and describes how visitors to Colorín Colorado can use the software for free!

To learn more about NameCoach, you can see an example of Praveen's personalized page with the correct pronunciation of his name, as well as this introductory video.

Throughout my life, I have heard my name mispronounced many times and in many different ways. Though I was never consciously offended by it, I realized over time that this oversight communicates an unfortunate, if unintended, message – you are an outsider.  Your family gets your name right.  And friends usually do.  And within a particular culture, your name is probably said correctly.  But when it’s mispronounced again and again, you’re reminded that, in those settings, you don’t quite belong. My mom, for example, told me that just after immigrating to the United States, she tried to teach her physician’s staff how to pronounce her name (‘Anupama’). One of them said it would just be easier to call her ‘Anna,’ and did so whenever they called her into the office.  She said it felt as if they were seeing and treating someone else.

Dale Carnegie is famous for saying that “a person’s name is to that person the sweetest, most important sound in any language.”  Part of that is the sense of familiarity and belonging that naturally and inconspicuously comes with hearing your name said correctly.  But for many people, the other side of the coin is that hearing their name mispronounced leaves a slightly bitter taste – a feeling to which they should not have to grow accustomed.

Getting It Right from the Start

As it turns out, there has been a lot of research done examining this issue, particularly in schools. Schools are formative in how children experience the world, learn to socialize, and come to view themselves.  For many immigrant families, schools are the first places where they and their children experience the culture and values of their new home country.  So it’s important that students feel respected and welcomed, and don’t feel alienated from their peers or teachers.  Good intentions can quickly be overshadowed when a student’s name is mispronounced, and done so repeatedly by many people. 

Some of the best work on the effects of name mispronunciation in school settings has been done by Rita Kohli and Daniel Solorzano. In this 2012 study, they present a number of poignant and illuminating anecdotes they collected, which taken together lead them to conclude that the “actions and attitudes [students] experienced in K-12 schools highlight a type of cultural ‘othering’ that contradicts our goals for multicultural school environments… even just stumbling over a name they had never seen before, the tone set by a teacher about a student’s name was something significant that participants have remembered for many years.”

One anecdote particularly struck me as I read the study:

“In 2009, in a middle school classroom in California, a bright, spunky seventh grader was overheard saying to her friends, ‘I’m Natália!’  Later when she introduced herself, she said her name was Natalie. When questioned about having said Natalia earlier, she said ‘Yeah, yeah.  Teachers always say my name wrong.  They say Na-tail-ia, and I hate it.  It sounds so ugly, so I tell them Natalie.’” Based on the inability or unwillingness to correctly pronounce her name, Natália did not feel her culture was valued and like countless people having nearly identical experiences, changed her name.  For many children, no matter their background, a mispronunciation of their name hits hard.

Although the issue can affect anyone, it is particularly salient for many students of color, students of different cultural or ethnic backgrounds, and English language learners (ELLs).  Starting school as an ELL can be daunting, but something as simple as learning a student’s name correctly can go a long way in creating a space where kids feel nurtured. And on the flip side, mispronouncing a student’s name may not lead just to make the student uncomfortable or feel unwelcome – it may discourage him or her from participating in school activities, such as awards ceremonies, graduations, and extra-curricular activities, as in another case from the Kohli and Solorzano study:

“Every teacher this student ever had mispronounced her name. She dreaded daily attendance, never raised her hand, and tried to remain inconspicuous and anonymous in the classroom. She graduated from one of Portland’s high schools with honors. At the honors ceremony prior to graduation, a vice principal walked to the podium to present the student with a prestigious award. He butchered her name mercilessly, shaking his head and laughing as others laughed along. The student slumped in her seat and hid behind the person seated in front of her. She did not go onstage to receive her award and did not attend graduation the next night. As soon she was able to, the student changed her name to ‘Anita.’”

There is, however, a larger civic purpose as well.  Schools are meant to be a place where we teach the values important to us as a free and multicultural society, and where we manifest and model those values – values such as inclusion and mutual respect.   If we get this right with our schools, whether by ensuring names are said correctly or in any number of other ways, we serve the grander mission of education.

This is particularly important as our society and schools are generally becoming more diverse.  There’s a real shift in demographics happening right now that very clearly impacts teachers and students and highlights the name mispronunciation problem.  ELL populations are on the rise in the K-12 schools in the U.S., and in 2015, international student enrollment in US colleges and universities hit a record high and had the fastest growth rate since 1979. It makes sense that we are finally starting to pay more attention to the ways in which we could make diverse populations feel more welcome.

The Story Behind NameCoach

Although my name was often mispronounced, I never imagined that this issue would lead me to start my own company! The story of NameCoach is the story of many tech start-ups in Silicon Valley – this is what happens when an unsolved, overlooked problem meets students with a little extra time on their hands.

I was working on my PhD in philosophy at Stanford when my sister graduated from college.  Our parents immigrated to the United States with a number of aspirations for their children, of which a big one was getting a college degree here.  So it was a much-anticipated moment when she graduated – not only was our immediate family in attendance, but for the many relatives who had traveled from afar for her graduation as well.  And yet, when it came time for her to cross the stage, her name was butchered, marring the big moment we had all come to see.

I realized something when we heard my sister’s name mangled at graduation that we’ve now heard many times from NameCoach users: there’s a subtle but real sense of alienation that happens when your name is mispronounced.  At important events like graduation, that is magnified because the graduate is front and center, and it’s not just the graduate’s moment, but their family’s as well.  Nothing could detract from the pride that we felt seeing the culmination of her hard work; but like most families who see their graduate’s name mispronounced, we felt that after so many years of involvement at this institution, the least they could do was recognize her properly.  And by extension, recognize us.

The other important thing that came from the experience was the realization that her name wasn’t mangled for lack of trying. They certainly tried at her graduation, and we could sense the embarrassment on the part of the faculty member who read her name.  That’s important, because we all do it to various people in various settings, and wish we could avoid it.  Given that most of us want to pronounce names correctly, it seemed plausible that if we had a tool to make it easier, it would be really helpful for a lot of people.  So I knew it would be worth building a tool like NameCoach.

It occurred to me that this problem could be solved if people could just hear how to say a name on demand, like hearing vocabulary words pronounced on language-learning software.  During breaks from writing my dissertation, I started dabbling in programming, in part because I had lots of friends to help me learn.  I decided to code up an app that would collect recordings of students saying their names and deliver them to name readers for graduation.

What prompted me to take it from a fun project to a start-up with a grander vision was the incredibly positive response I got from faculty and students who used it.  They loved it, and really wanted to use it in other contexts besides graduation.  I had friends who wanted to help with the project too.  We decided to focus full-time on it, raising seed funding, and now have an incredible team and hundreds of schools using our various software and services.  We are thrilled to be able to help solve this ubiquitous problem.

How NameCoach Works

Name Coach provides audio recordings of people saying their names, making it much easier to both learn and remember how to say a name.  To collect names, schools use our web software to either directly share a link or send a mass email to students with a link to audio record their names. They can also embed a link online in a website that students will be accessing, such as a student registration page.

Once the recordings are created, we make audio recordings available in different ways:  

  • Users can create a ‘Name Page’ within our web app.  Name Pages provide groups of audio recordings for easy use by a teacher (for her class), or a principal (for announcing names at graduation), or for a number of other uses.
  • Schools may also embed recording playback buttons (or NameBadge buttons such as this) anywhere a text name appears online, such as in a school directory or class roster, as well as on other platforms such as Canvas or Blackboard.
  • Students also can use NameBadges to help people say their name correctly and to provide more information about their name, its meaning, and other significance.

Now that we have so many names recorded, it makes sense to make them available!  NameCoach is compiling all of these recordings into the world’s biggest general audio name pronunciation database, which is useful in cases where users have not recorded their own name.

The Impact of This Work

The impact of NameCoach has been exciting to watch unfold.  I had no idea when I started building the first version of the app for Stanford graduation ceremonies that so many people in so many schools would find it so helpful in so many different ways.  I am grateful to every single person who has participated in NameCoach and contributed to its evolution as a platform for creating more inclusive school communities.

Faculty, staff, announcers at graduation, and school administrators have all told us how helpful the software has been for ensuring student names are announced and pronounced correctly in different school settings, including commencement.   One administrator at Hamline College called it “miraculous”, and that’s the sort of sheer delight our team is dedicated to making happen.

But the most rewarding impact has been with the students, who have told us that NameCoach tools “preserve dignity” and help stop the “death by a thousand cuts” that comes with hearing their names mispronounced over and over again.  One student articulated what we do in a way that really struck me: “instituting seemingly small things like this can have the largest impact on campus culture. It is a recognition of the value of diversity.” As the number of schools working with us rapidly grows, we’re excited to see how people benefit from the platform in new and varied ways.

Name Mispronunciation in the News

It’s been amazing to see that people are talking about name mispronunciation in our schools a lot more in recent months, in articles appearing in InsideHigherEd, the San Francisco Chronicle, Education Week and many more.  I think there are a few reasons it’s getting increased attention.

One is the increased diversity of our student population, mentioned above. I also believe that the tireless work of my team at NameCoach has made a difference.  We collaborate with our customers as closely as possible to help them make their schools more inclusive, and they have started talking about these collaborations with their peers.  For example, Jason Markey, the principal at Leyden High School in Franklin Park, IL, discussed our work together at a recent presentation on educational technology.  That helped inspire work on the My Name, My Identity initiative, which has been bringing the issue to the attention of teachers and administrators throughout the country (partly through the use of the hashtag #mynamemyid).  We are thrilled to be part of a larger movement to solve the problem and create more inclusive schools.

Our Vision For the Future

We will continue to expand the NameCoach platform to make it as easy as possible for people to respect each other’s identity, build a sense of community, and create a more inclusive society.  Whether that’s new features (such as photo uploads for our Name Pages) or new elements (such as gender pronouns) or new use cases (such as for staff calling a student’s family), or a names database for frequently mispronounced names, we will continue to innovate in collaboration with our nation’s schools.   We envision a world in which, with the aid of NameCoach tools, it’s simply no longer an issue to be able to say someone’s name correctly, or refer to them in the right way, or make them feel like they belong.

How You Can Use NameCoach

As a user of Colorín Colorado, you can sign up today and immediately access our NameCoach web app for your classroom for free.   Invite your students to record their name by sharing the ‘recording link’ that’s automatically created after you create a ‘Name Page’ for your class.  Or upload an Excel file with their email addresses to send an automated email through our system, inviting them each to record their name.  You can do this before you meet students so that you can say their name correctly from the beginning.

You can also encourage your students to take it a step further and create their own NameBadges.  After recording their name, they can upload a photo, and add the origin, meaning, and story behind their name.  Have students share NameBadges so they can learn each other’s names, and learn more about each other’s background.  Use it as an icebreaker, whether classes have begun or on the first day of school!

If you are interested in bringing NameCoach technology to your whole school or district, please contact us (info@name-coach.com) about getting a site or district license.  We invest our resources in creating an ever-better platform for inclusive schools, and your support and suggestions are always welcome.

Articles

Getting It Right: Reference Guides for Registering Students With Non-English Names

Getting a student’s name right is the first step in welcoming him or her to school. Not only is pronunciation important, but incorrectly entering student names can mean that the same student is listed in different databases in various ways and often with incomplete records. Consequently, students who are eligible for services (for example, English learner support) can be unidentified or overlooked.

This set of naming conventions guides from IES and REL Northwest can serve as a reference for accurately and consistently entering students’ names in school, district, and state databases as well as address and greet parents and other family members in a culturally responsive and respectful way. The guides are available for students with home languages of Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Tagalog, Ukrainian, Urdu, and Vietnamese.

 

References

Kohli, R. & Solórzano, D. (2012). Teachers, please learn our names!: Racial Microagressions and the K-12 Classroom. Race, Ethnicity and Education.

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