What’s in a Name?

By Hedda Sharapan

At the Oregon AEYC conference last month, I had a wonderful conversation with an Iranian woman who talked with me about her work in America with children.  She spoke with an accent, so I made sure to listen closely when she told me that her name is Nassrim (Nuss-REEN).  I repeated it to make sure I heard right.  When I saw her the next day, I wanted to make a point of calling her by name, but was it “Nuss-u-rin” or “Nussrim?”  Well, I’m still not sure I remembered it right or said it correctly, but from her warm smile, it seemed she appreciated that I tried.

I, too, have a rather unusual name, so I’ve had the experience of feeling uncomfortable when people call me “HEEda” (instead of “HEAD-a”) or hear my name as “Heather” which is more familiar. So maybe I’m extra careful about names, but in this multi-cultural world, that’s especially important for all of us.

Fred always made a great effort to pronounce correctly the names of the guests who were on the program or visitors in the studio. For one set of Neighborhoodprograms, he had an exchange visit with Tatiana Vedneeyva, host of a popular children’s program in Russia, who spoke very little English.  Fred spent a lot of time learning key Russian phrases, as well as the correct pronunciation of her name (Ta-tee-AH-na Ved-NAA-vuh,)  When you watch this video, you can see how much care he gave to making her feel welcome.

A Way to Say “I Care about You” 
Names are so much a part of our identity and self-image.  I’ll bet you can remember how much you appreciate when someone uses your name (and pronounces it correctly) when they’re talking with you.  It makes the conversation more personal.  Think about how much it contributes to relationship-building when you address someone by name.

A sign of respect
In our multi-cultural world, we’re all aware that there is a great deal of diversity in child care, with many languages and many cultures even in one classroom or family child care.   Just trying to pronounce someone’s name is a way of acknowledging that person’s heritage…a way of showing interest and respect for our differences and similarities, whether you’re talking with a child, a child’s family, or even another staff person.

Some sounds are difficult
It’s a fact that there are sounds which are natural in some languages that the brain, ear, and tongue learn early on – but are nearly impossible for someone unaccustomed to that language.  A friend of mine made sure to include “Hanukah” when she talked with the children about the winter holidays.  But a Jewish child in the group corrected her, saying “No, it’s not ‘Hanukah!  It’s CHanukah” with the Hebrew guttural CH that she couldn’t even approximate!  At that point, we can even say to a child something like, “That’s hard for me to say.  It helps me to hear how you say it.  Can you say it again for me?”

An effort worth making 
Most people really appreciate if you just try to pronounce their name correctly.  But it’s not always easy.  I’ve had the experience of trying and then asking if I got it right…and getting it wrong and having to work on it more than a few times.  Besides learning names, you might even want to work on a few key phrases in a language of an adult or a child in your care, like hello and goodbyemilk, potty, sleep — andthank you(which Fred always said was the most important phrase in any language).

When you’re trying to use unfamiliar names, words and sounds in your conversation with someone, you might find that you’re listening more closely to each other, maybe even laughing together as you fumble with the language, all of which can create an even warmer connection and stronger relationship.