People Can't Pronounce My Name: Here's Why

Op-ed

Gwun. If you read that as "Gwen", then you are part of 98% of people in my life. If you read that as "Gwinn", then you are 1% of the aforementioned population. If you read that as "Gwun", then you are included in the rare — and correct — 1%.

Throughout my life, I have received so many mispronunciations of my name that it still baffles me to this day; I've gotten everything ranging from "Gwen" to "Gwinn" to even "Courtney". I never understood why people could never get it right; after all, it's a phonetic name. Fortunately for me, I was not born with a name that was directly borrowed from another language's alphabet, such as Saoirse or Antoine, but that didn't mean that people wouldn't try to make it seem "ethnic". Sometimes people would tell me that they were "influenced by my ethnicity" and that they tried to pronounce it with an "accent", but why would that ever be the case? What does it even mean to pronounce a name ethnically?

Here are my experiences with my "foreign" name and why people pronounce it the way they do.

My Personal Experiences

Unlike some of the other kids, I dreaded roll-call at school. Once it got to the end of the list and the teacher paused, everyone in the class immediately knew who was waiting to be called on. Even after repeating my name to thousands and thousands of classmates and teachers, somehow the correct name never came out of their mouths.

At the beginning of my 9th-grade biology class, my teacher asked us to individually write out the pronunciation of our names. I was confused. I had no idea how to write it out because it was pronounced the way it was written; in the end, I decided to write "G-wun". After seeing it, he asked me and laughed, "Oh, so it's pronounced the way it's spelled?". This question angered me. Maybe it was because he was my homeroom teacher and I had already explained this to him. Maybe it was because I was frustrated at his lack of understanding. Maybe I was simply just angry. After a short while though, I released my ire and laughed it off just as he did because why be angry over a simple question? I quickly remembered a Buzzfeed video starring Kuwilileni about having a unique name and thought that this was just part of the whole experience.

During 11th grade in homeroom, I was the first to enter, which also meant that I was the first to give my name. My teacher stared at her clipboard and asked me what my name was — the dreadful question. I replied, but only to be met with a confused look, something that I was already used to by now. She asked me to repeat it and I gave her my pronunciation run through: "It's 'one' with a 'G' in front of it. 'Gwun', it rhymes with 'one'". After about 5-10 seconds of pure, concentrated thinking, she looked me in the eye and attempted, "Gun?". That was when I knew not to fully trust English teachers.

When I was younger, although I was insulted by people's varying pronunciations of my name, I later learned to laugh it off and endure it. In turn, this has made me love and cherish my name even more. I consider myself very lucky to be a part of the "unique names" club, even if it means that the Starbucks employee can never get my name correct.

Why Can't People Pronounce My Name?

The answer is simple: Phonics. For those that are not aware, phonics, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is a method of teaching beginners to read and pronounce words by learning the phonetic value of letters, letter groups, and especially syllables. In short, they are extremely significant lessons that teach individuals the basics of pronouncing words. For the most part, they are taught in primarily English-speaking countries from a young age.

Phonics not only help to pronounce phonetic names correctly, but they also help an individual read better. Throughout all of my years as a student, I've experienced many English classes where one person is called on to read aloud and it takes them 20 minutes to finish one page.

After researching a little more about phonics, it seems that the entire American educational system does not rely on this learning method anymore. Instead, they rely on the "Whole-word Approach" which, according to readandspell.com, relies on memorization and teaches kids to read by sight. This means that in place of sounding out individual words and syllables, students are trained to recognize an object by the manner of the teacher constantly repeating the object's given word. This is not an issue if you are simply learning English for the sake of speaking and understanding; however, when reading comes into play, there is a big predicament.

Take my name, for example. Many people tend to pronounce my name as "Gwen". But why? Since the majority of young students are taught using the "Whole-word Approach", many people don't think twice when looking at my name. If they see the adjacent letters "Gw", a vowel, and "n" (Gw_n), their memory-driven brain directs them to produce the name, Gwen. Contrary to this method, however, if one were to use phonics, there would be no confusion because all of the syllables are there, their brain just needs to sound them out. There would also be no misunderstandings because the letter 'e' makes the "eh" sound and the letter 'u' makes the "uh" sound. It's actually more simple than it seems.

This fact can also be applied to why people mishear the pronunciation of certain names. People tend to relate what they hear to the knowledge that they already possess. For example, in the comment section of the second Buzzfeed video, a user named "Seri" recounted her experience with having a "difficult" name. She continuously tried correcting that person until she surrendered at "Siri". People are largely more familiar with "Siri" than they are "Seri", so as a result, the wrong name is said.

If you are someone who is guilty of freely calling someone by the wrong name, make sure to clarify and fix it! I always feel motivated and happy when someone corrects themself and calls me by the right name. In order not to appear awkward, a simple "how do you pronounce your name?" and "please correct me if I'm wrong" is sufficient to smoothen any bumps.

If you have a unique name, don't feel intimidated or shy! The name is what defines a person and their personality. After all that I've gone through, I've learned to both accept and be proud of my name, no matter what others say. There is only one you in this world, even if there may be duplicates of your name out there. Next time, if somebody mispronounces your phonetically-pronounced name, just remember that they might not know their phonics!

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Gwun Yi Wong

Editor · 93 edited articles · 13 pitched topics · 50 writers helped

Gwun Yi Wong is a high school Senior at the Boston Latin School. She loves dancing, immersing herself in music, and obsessing about fashion. She has a strong passion to spread the thoughts and voices of teenagers. When she's not at school studying environmental science and economics, she is often seen catching up with her friends, playing instruments, and pondering about life.


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