Is an English name necessary to succeed in the English workplace? This article looks at the whys, dos, and don’ts of picking an English name.


Do I need an English name?


The short answer is ‘no’.


The name that your parents gave you at birth is as much a part of your identity as your personality, qualifications, and skills. There is nothing wrong with entering the workplace in an English-speaking country and introducing yourself with your own name.



Why choose an English name?


There are many reasons that lead some learners to decide to choose an English name, including:


  1. A fear that native English speakers may have difficulty in pronouncing their given name.
  2. A belief that adopting an English name can be a sign of being educated amongst friends and family in the learner’s own country.
  3. A belief that adopting a new name in the language you are learning can assist in developing a new or extended cultural identity.


Reason 1 is perhaps the most common reason. It’s possible, particularly for those with names from non-European languages, that English speakers may have difficulty pronouncing your name. As such, you’ll need to be able to accept that some people who you haven’t met before may mispronounce it from time to time. But as long as you have a little patience to slowly sound out your name one syllable at a time, you’ll find that most speakers will be able to pronounce it fairly well from then onwards.


Reason 2 is perhaps more common amongst younger learners who are living in their home country. It is less important for those who are living abroad and seems a bit immaterial (for the purpose of language learning) in either case.


Reason 3, in my opinion, holds the most valuable argument for language learners, but applies differently to different people. For many people, language learning is more than just the mastery of words and communication, and spans the much broader concepts of cultural behavior, customs, and attitudes. The most successful language learners will arguably include those who show a greater tolerance for shifts in identity that benefit communication. For example, most language learners have a rather rigid set of rules governing the movement of their tongue, jaw and mouth, which have been ingrained over years of conformity with the movements of their mother tongue.


Learners who show a greater tolerance for persevering with uncomfortable, foreign mouth positions are more likely to master these sounds (and sound more natural as a result). Another example, sourced from my own experience living in Beijing, involves the use of local behaviours or gestures. After a couple of years of study, without any conscious effort, I found myself beginning to exclaim ‘啊呀 ’ in times of frustration or surprise. And of course this interjection would lose all authenticity without the accompanying exaggerated intonation, flailing of arms, and sharp exhalation of air.


These cultural and spoken mannerisms, when unfamiliar to one’s own cultural background and speech patterns, take a learner out of the comfort zone of their mother culture and into the zone of cultural identity shift. A learner who has a high tolerance for these shifts should thus be able master native communication more fully.


Could you become a fluent English speaker with a full sense of the language and culture without taking on an English name? Probably. But some learners believe that taking on a new name is a liberating experience and may help them accomplish this goal.


If you have decided you’d like to have an English name, then read on for advice on how to choose one.



How not to choose an English name


You should assume that you’ll keep this name for life, so take care to pick one that you like the sound or meaning of and that is an acceptable name in English. Here are some English names that I have come across that I don’t recommend:


  • Group A – Easy, Scissors, Stone, Summer / Sunny (for a man), Vascular
  • Group B – Girabbit, Winnex
  • Group C – Chandler, Hermione, Kobe


Let’s look at why I don’t recommend these:


Group A are words taken from the English language that are not used as names in English-speaking countries. These examples were all chosen by Chinese students, most often due to their similarity in meaning or sound with their own Chinese names. Vascular was chosen due to its association with the student’s profession (he is a heart surgeon). In addition, Summer and Sunny are both viewed as feminine names in English.


While Chinese names are generally made up of common words in the Chinese language, take note that English names are not formed this way – instead, they are generally picked from a list of traditional names based on their sound, meaning, or in memory of a beloved relative or friend. Picking a name in a different manner ignores the cultural background of the second language; and as such, threatens to be met with embarrassment, surprise, or offence.


Group B names have been created by combining two English words: a) giraffe and rabbit, b) Windows and Linux. While they are certainly creative names, this is also not a traditional way of choosing a name in English. If a potential employer views that you haven’t taken the task of choosing a name seriously, then they may also question your ability to take work seriously.


Group C comprises names of famous people or fictional characters: Chandler Bing (from ‘Friends’), Hermione Granger (from ‘Harry Potter’), Kobe Bryant (an American basketball player). Their names are fairly uncommon, meaning that they are instantly recognisable by their first names alone. If you would like to choose a name like this, be aware that many native speakers will immediately know its source when you introduce yourself.


It’s possible that your name will evoke memories of these famous people every time they see you. You might not see this as a bad thing and indeed there are many native English speakers who name their children after famous people despite their names being uncommon. However, note that as you are naming yourself (and not a child), your choice indicates clearly to the people you meet that you are likening your own identity to this person in some way.



How to choose an appropriate English name


When in Rome, do as the Romans do’.


So how do Western parents choose names for their children? Unless they already have a name in mind, they traditionally head straight for a book of baby names -- where they can research names’ meanings and see which names seem to sound good when spoken with the family name. They may also have a preference for names beginning with a particular letter. Note that the popularity of English names is generally cyclical, with names going in and out of fashion over the years.


Here are some steps to choosing a decent name:


1. Check out this excellent Baby Name Finder from Huggies, which allows you to search for names by gender, origin, meaning or first letter. They also have categories of names if you’re looking for something ‘interesting’, ‘religious’, ‘unusual’ or ‘unique’. The ‘interesting’ category is sub-divided into popular names by decade from the 1960’s upwards – so, if you’re 40 years’ old and want to choose an English name, head over to the ‘1970’s’ section in order to choose a name that would sound authentic among your generation. Whether you are searching for a name or browsing a category, simply click on the name to find out its origin, meaning, and similar names. Note that the site doesn’t include any support for how to pronounce the names.


2. Create a list of names that you like the sound or meaning of. Do they sound nice when spoken alongside your surname? When adopting an English name, you should follow the custom of beginning with your first (English) name and ending with your (native language) surname.


3. Run your list by an English teacher or native English speaker before deciding on it. They should be able to tell you how it’s pronounced and whether it rolls off the tongue well with your surname.


4. Wear your name with pride in English conversation and have fun experimenting with the newest extension to your cultural identity.


Good luck, and may your name always suit you wherever your learning takes you!


Hero image by Graham Lavender (CC BY 2.0)