What’s in a name?

When a child first arrives in a new school, one of the first questions they will be asked is, “What is your name?” If the child is a recently-arrived immigrant or refugee from a non-English-speaking background, that question is one they will quickly learn to recognise and answer.

Names can help enormously in the settling-in process for a recently-arrived child. In Language School, I do a lot of games and warm-up activities using names. It’s a way for me to establish that in this environment, each person is important, each person is noticed, each person has something to contribute. Frequently, new students take their time to use their voice in the strange new environment they find themselves in at Language School. But names are words they know how to say, especially when motivated by the fun of taking part in a game (it’s also a way for new students to learn and practice saying the names of other students in the class). In this way, the name games become a way to build up new children’s oral language confidence.

However, no matter how simple or familiar, names remain quite complex signifiers, with a lot of cultural information or assumptions embedded in them. Anyone who teaches students from China will know that they always have a Chinese name, but may choose to use an English name for school in Australia (or other English-speaking settings. Do they take on French names in France, German names in Germany, etc? I’m curious, and would love to hear from anyone who knows). Certainly at our school, this is something that is decided by the student and their parents, rather than through any expectation of the school. Does the English name help them feel settled and included in the new country? A wonderful book that I referred to a lot in my Masters research project, The inner world of the immigrant child, (by Christina Igoa, 1995, New York: St Martin’s Press) discussed with concern the feelings of alienation or anxiety that immigrant children may suffer in their first months or years in a new country. Perhaps being able to retain their own name would offer an additional psychological support?

I start many of my music workshops with a very simple name game. Over the years I’ve tried variations on this game, but I came back to the basic version much of the time, because it is so effective. It asks each child in the circle to say their name, and then the whole group says their name back to them. We go once around the circle.

In the Lower Primary class at Language School last week, we had a new student – Bao Yan from China. She was quiet, and keeping herself beside the other Chinese girl in the class, copying what she did. However, Bao Yan had a good spark of engagement about her too, and I kept an eye on her as the lesson got started.

She was introduced to me as Bao Yan, and she had a label on her jumper with that name written on it. But when it was her turn to speak in our Name Game around the circle, she said something like ‘Lin’ or ‘Lee’.

Clever girl! I thought to myself. She understands how this game works, and she is using the name that she wants to be called. Still, I shot a glance to her teacher to see if she knew what the correct name was, but she was just as surprised as I was to hear a name other than that on the sticker on her jumper. Poor little Bao Yan was looking puzzled as to why the game had stopped. “Shall I go and ask one of the Chinese aides to check with her what her name is?” her teacher suggested and called Bao Yan to go with her.

Bao Yan looked completely alarmed by this. When she came back to the room, she was in tears. She’d thought she’d been taken out of the room because she was in trouble. The Chinese aide – one of three lovely women on staff who assist with all sorts of translating and cultural interpretation work – had tried to reassure her, but her nerves were probably already in a very heightened state.

It turned out that Lin was what she wanted to be called. This was the name she had used in our game and it was her English name.

I don’t know why this information isn’t always established at the time of enrollment – probably because there is so much information being exchanged and it would be a very confusing process for the parents as well.

It took Lin a while to settle back into the class. She watched rather than joined in for much of the time. Later, we did a task in pairs and she worked with her Chinese classmate and relaxed a little. Then, as the last task before recess, I sat the group back down in a circle and started up the Name Game one more time.

“Lin!,” Lin called confidently when it was her turn. “Lin!” we all repeated and affirmed back to her. Lin. You are here. We are all saying your name. You are part of our group.

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1 comment so far

  1. tony hicks on

    It’s odd how we have expectations about how our multicultural community should be. Immigrants should use their original names so we can feel that our world view embraces multicultural difference. But new arrivals have a contrary perspective. They are looking for acceptance and survival as they redefine themselves in a new world!


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