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Most Australian universities have a large number of international students. Common countries of origin include China, Singapore, and Malaysia. When interacting with students, it's much nicer if you can learn their name and pronounce it correctly. To reduce the scope of this question, I thought I'd limit it to Chinese names, but it could be broadened to include other Asian countries.

Several challenges emerge with Chinese names for an Australian (and presumably others from North America, Europe, etc.):

  • challenges of pronunciation
  • challenges when reading a Chinese name of knowing which part of the full name is the name to address the student by
  • challenges in remember the name. In particular, I find it difficult to remember a name that I can't pronounce. Furthermore, the less familiar I am with a name and the fewer associations I have with a name, the harder I find it is to remember.

Questions

  • How can I learn how to pronounce names of Chinese students?
  • How can I better recall names of Chinese students? e.g., get acquainted with common names, build some semantic knowledge around Chinese names.

I'd be particularly interested in any good online resources for this purpose.

UPDATE: Following the suggestion of @scaaahu I have asked this question also on Chinese Stack Exchange.com . I normally would not cross-post, but I think that this question might be a rare exception to the rule where cross-posting will provide complementary perspectives.

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    For the first question: why not just ask the student? Surely he or she knows how his or her name should be pronounced. I don't see why Chinese students should be treated any differently in this regard from Polish ones or Portuguese ones. – Willie Wong Jun 29 '12 at 11:04
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    I agree asking the student is a good general strategy. With regards to my context I find most European names relatively easy to understand and recall (e.g., the most common Portuguese name is Maria. There's a greater linguistic similarity to English. Also with regards to the Australian context, between 25 to 50% of students are international students (most have an Asian background). I think building up an appreciation of the general rules of Asian names including Chinese would be really helpful to me. – Jeromy Anglim Jun 29 '12 at 13:15
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    I also agree that this isn't really an issue when you are interacting with someone regularly. It's more of an issue when you have several large classes with 60 new names to learn or when you are wanting to pronounce the name of a researcher that you have never met. – Jeromy Anglim Jun 29 '12 at 13:20
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    As a Chinese learner, I advise that you could spend time to learn Chinese pronunciation. There aren't many different sounds in Chinese so you could use a pinyin chart to give you all the romanization representation of each sound and have a tutor help you pronunciation each one of them. As well as learning different tones. You don't actually have to learn the meaning, just the pronunciation which is the easiest part of learning any language. (Compared to vocab) quickmandarin.com/chinesepinyintable – Mallow Jul 1 '12 at 20:24
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First of all, I would like to sincerely thank you for your consideration on behalf of all Chinese (I am a Chinese myself).

Now, to answer your questions. One of the best ways to pronounce the individual Chinese names correctly is to ask them - those Chinese students. They would be glad to tell you.

In its nature, Chinese is hard for English speaking people to pronounce. This site is not the right place to discuss the details. There is a better Stack Exchange site.

There are many Chinese dialects. Mandarin Chinese is the most common one. I just did a search, this site seems to be a good place to use. I tried some of the audio sound clips and they sound fine.

Again, asking them is the best way. My Chinese last name is Hu. The correct pronunciation is like "who". Many non-Chinese speaking people pronounce it wrong. I already got used to it but I am always happy to tell them the right way when they ask me. So, thank you again for asking.

Your second question is how to recall Chinese names. This is even harder for a non-Chinese speaking person. My suggestion is to ask individuals what names they go by. If they have English names, would they prefer you call their English names?! I believe most of them would say yes. If they insist on you calling them by their Chinese names, I am afraid the only way is to ask their names every time you meet them. I am not sure they would like it but if that's what they want, that's the way they get.

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    Do Chinese get offended if their names are mispronounced? I am an Indian, but if someone pronounces my name wrongly, I won't really bother! – Bravo Jun 28 '12 at 4:08
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    I think it's reasonable to expect someone to be a little annoyed if their name is mispronounced. I know I get annoyed. – Suresh Jun 28 '12 at 4:11
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    @Bravo, it depends. Some would, some don't. But, I got a little bit upset when someone jokes about my name, like "Who is Hu(who)?". – scaaahu Jun 28 '12 at 4:17
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    Thanks for the suggestions. I'm happy to ask students. However, I would like to develop a basic framework for understanding Chinese names. E.g., pronunciation rules, know common names, know whether a name is male or female or gender-neutral, know which written name is the given name, know whether a name is Chinese or not, etc. I think having such a framework would make it easier to actually use Chinese names in real-world settings. – Jeromy Anglim Jun 28 '12 at 6:14
  • @JeromyAnglim, it's not that I don't want to answer your question. You actually ask a very good one - basic framework for Chinese naming. I believe you'll get good answers from Chinese Language SE. Please try there. – scaaahu Jun 28 '12 at 6:40
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There's a specific site that has examples of Chinese names. You might find that quite helpful. There aren't audio files though, and there seems to be a disagreement between the site and the one linked above about the correct pronunciation of 'zh' (as 'dr' or 'j').

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    Mandarin is my native language, so I don't use those sites often. I found the site I cited by Google. I cannot claim it's 100% correct. Actually, the pronounciation of zh is more complicated than the difference between dr or j. I am afraid the details is off-topic. – scaaahu Jun 28 '12 at 4:40
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To those commenting "ASK THEM," yes, obviously. However, this doesn't exactly address the OP's issue, because this only provides a one-off for each individual name, but doesn't provide a framework for learning to pronounce new names in the future. It's also endlessly frustrating for a student to have to be like "my name is pronounced X," english speaker: "S?" Chinese student: "X", english speaker: "S??", etc.

The key issue for Chinese names from the perspective of native English speakers is that pinyin does not exactly map onto English pronunciation. I can't count how many times an English speaker has encountered pinyin like "qi" and subconsciously inserted a u, morphing it into "qui" or some other monstrosity.

It can be helpful to learn some basic Mandarin linguistics for name pronunciation. For example, each Chinese character is made up of a final and optional initial phoneme. The allowed phonemes are super small, thus all possible Mandarin pinyin can be written in a compact table: https://chinese.yabla.com/chinese-pinyin-chart.php

Obviously this doesn't cover the tones, but comparing a student's name with this table and practicing the pronunciation (such as by recording yourself and comparing your recording with the audio file for the same pinyin) will get you much further than 99% of native English speakers.

As for remembering the names, this is challenging because as you mention memory is related to how many external connections you have to the word. Since Chinese names typically have no connections inside of a native English speaker's memory, to remember them you need to actively create those connections through simple/stupid mnemonics. As an English example: "His name is Joe, joe is another word for coffee, java is another word for coffee, Java is an island in the Pacific." or something similarly inane. It's remarkable how effective this has been for me personally.

As a conclusion, the important point is that you are making an honest effort and most people will appreciate that you are trying to do the right thing, no matter how far away you are from the "perfect" pronunciation. I once overheard an introduction between a Chinese person and English speaker, in which the English speaker came out with this gem: "Don't bother telling me your name, I'll never remember." If that had happened to me, that would stick in my craw for the rest of my life, and quite possibly beyond!!

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  • +1 It seems that the people who answer "ask them" haven't tried to answer that question, and after the 4th time just had to say that's good enough, it's always too hard for non-<Language>-speaking people. You can't learn to hear and pronounce foreign phonemes in a minute. – JiK Jun 23 '20 at 9:10
  • (cont'd) Obviously, asking people and then iterating is a good way to make sure you pronounce it in a way the person is happy enough with, but it does feel good when someone gets it very close, so a teacher who has actually studied some Chinese pronunciation can make a very good impression. – JiK Jun 23 '20 at 9:12
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This answer is going to address not only Chinese names, but all unfamiliar names.

Most answers say "Just ask them!", but personally I found that to be insufficient and only marginally helpful. I have the same experience when people ask me about my own name, which many find confusing to pronounce. Repeating it back to them many times at their request does not appear to be the best way to help them remember.

Here's what works for me:

  1. Do not try to remember sounds (what you hear). Write it down, and remember the written form instead. We are better at handling structured, abstract information than an unfamiliar amorphous sound blob.

  2. Once you wrote it down, learn the basics of how to read the language in question, i.e. how to convert written letters to spoken sounds. This is easy with phonetic writing systems, such as Chinese pinyin, and shouldn't take more than 20-30 minutes. Once you have the knowledge, you can apply it to all Chinese names: just ask the person to write it down for you in pinyin. If you are a teacher with many Chinese students, it's a worthwhile investment of time.

The key is: (1) Remember a formalized, abstract representation. This helps with memory. (2) Learn the basic rules about how to read out this representation aloud, e.g. from Wikipedia. This provides some certainty and takes away the anxiety about "pronouncing it wrong."

Your own native language may not have all the required sounds. You may struggle with some of them. If you do, simply find a "good enough" approximation and stick to it deliberately. The purpose is to take out the anxiety from pronouncing the names. For example, if you are an English speaker and you can't roll your rs, simply substitute an English r. If you try to get that r right every time you talk to "Carlos", you may eventually find yourself avoiding saying his name.

Mandarin Chinese does not have many sounds that are especially difficult or unfamiliar to English speakers. The big one I can think of is ü, as in pinyin yu. Just ask someone to pronounce that sound for you, decide on the best approximation you can produce, and stick to it deliberately, even knowing that it is far from perfect. For xi and qi, most will naturally and easily substitute the English sh and ch. Of course, Chinese tones are also difficult, but again: skip them deliberately.


I find that this method works well for me in practice, both for remembering names or words in foreign languages. It also seems to work for helping others remember my own name. Many find its spelling intimidating, but once I explain that sz and cs are both indivisible units that represent a single sound (s from snake and ch from child, respectively), people find it much easier.

Unfortunately, in my experience, some English speakers struggle tremendously with the very concept of phonetic writing, or rather putting it into practice. Instead of consistently applying the rules of pronunciation specific to the writing system / language in question, they keep sliding back into trying to read it "the English way". They can't seem to segregate in their head two separate sets of pronunciation rules (for two languages) for the same set of symbols (Roman letters). I could never quite understand why, therefore I could never find an efficient way to help them. If you are one of them, then this might not be the best method for you. However, if you are a native speaker of a language that uses a phonetic writing system, understanding the basics of a different phonetic system will be trivial to you.


This method won't work well for a language that is usually written in Roman letters, but does not use a consistent phonetic system, such as French. In that case, you may need to make up your own phonetic representation. Languages that are not written in Roman letters usually have standard romanizations that tend to be consistent and phonetic (such as pinyin for Mandarin Chinese), so the only problem is knowing which Romanization you are dealing with, in case there are several.

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This isn't about pronunciation, but one thing I used to find myself confused by was not knowing which name was the family name and which was the given name (since sometimes people use the Chinese convention of family name first, but sometimes they westernize it by putting the family name last). A pattern that really helps for this is that family names are almost always 1-syllable, while given names are usually 2-syllables. This won't always work, it won't help you with Jiang Qing say, but as a quick sample it does work for every president of the PRC.

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Learning how to pronounce

As has already been mentioned, the best way is probably to ask the person yourself. As a Chinese, I don't expect a non-Chinese to be able to pronounce my Chinese name correctly; pronouncing the pinyin is good enough. Furthermore, I wouldn't expect a non-Chinese to know how to get the four tones correct.

However, if you're curious, and if you know the exact Chinese characters, one convenient resource is to use Google Translate's audio tool to play back Chinese words:

https://translate.google.com/#zh-CN/en/

You'll need to either cut and paste the characters into the text box, or use the handwriting tool to input the characters. Note that the accuracy of the handwriting tool is likely dependent on getting the stroke order correct.

Remembering Chinese names

Unless the Chinese name is very common, it's likely very hard to remember a person's Chinese name without writing it down. In academic circles, if the person has a publication record, you could get hold of this indirectly by getting a journal reference to a paper authored by the person. Alternatively, with social media, you could add/follow the person via Research Gate, LinkedIn or Facebook. Now that you have the name in writing, you could also check on the web as to how it is pronounced.

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To be honest, unless you learn Chinese, it's always hard for you to remember a Chinese name. Let me give you an example. Apple is apple in English, while in Chinese it is spelled as Ping Guo [苹果]. The apple in Chinese consists of two Chinese characters and seven English letters in Chinese Pinyin (the Romanization of Chinese). Either of the two Chinese characters can be assembled with other Chinese characters to make up a new Chinese name. And unlike western names, Chinese names often do not have a fixed meaning defined by ancestors or convention although each Chinese character has its own meaning solely or multiply. You may hear lots of Chinese boys called Junjie and cannot identify who is who since in Chinese Pinyin their given names are completely the same. But in Chinese per se their given names can be written in different Jun [e.g. 俊, 骏, 隽] and different Jie [e.g. 杰, 洁, 捷] and so the meaning of the names might be wholly different as well. So the best way to remember a Chinese name is to understand the meaning of the names, while to understand the meaning, the best way is to know how they are written in its original language. As each Chinese character may look like a picture to English speakers, it might be still hard for you to link the 'picture' with the romanizations.

However, instead of given names, just remembering the most popular surnames may ease you. Most Chinese people are named by a handful of surnames. Of course, the drawback is that you may be confused again once two or more Chinese you meet up have the same surname. But at least this is a little bit of progress, isn't it? If you still want to have a better understanding, then there is no more suggestion than learning this language.

1. familiarize yourself with popular Chinese surnames

2. ask the meaning of their names and let them write it down in its original language

3. learn the language

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Well, as I was some sort of a foreigner myself, I can tell you:

Ask them

The best way to pronounce someone's one in a foreign language is how they tell you it is pronounce. Notice, that this "first-hand" pronunciation might not correspond with the official one. (For the latter: basically, the way how our X-language tongue reproduces Y-language sounds might not benefit the recognition.)

Also, specifically for Chinese: some of them specifically adapt "easier" names for the communication with Westerners. So, fully expect something like:

"How should I call you?"
"Oh, my actual name is XY, but please call me just Z."

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