• What's in a name? International students are increasingly resisting social norms to Anglicise their "difficult" names. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
If we want to make international students feel welcome here, we could start by getting their names right.
By
Ian Rose

21 Jun 2016 - 10:03 AM  UPDATED 21 Jun 2016 - 10:03 AM

International education is quite the cash cow for Australia, and there are no signs of its udders withering any time soon.

Last year the revenue it generated rose by 13 per cent, coming close to $20 billion - the country’s third largest export industry.

Right now, around 600,000 international students are enrolled in Australia’s universities and colleges, and the numbers look set to keep growing (provided the dollar’s lethargy holds, and there is no repeat of the kind of violent attacks on Indian students that led to a slump in the market seven years ago).

If we’re smart, we’re going to make these people feel very, very welcome here. Not, for instance, ask if they maybe have an English name by which they’d like to be known, when those they’ve arrived with prove a pronunciation stretch too far for their teachers or some of their classmates.

Anglicising their names

I’ve been teaching English to international students at one of Melbourne’s leading universities for eight years. It's always seemed a little disturbing to me when some bemused teenage Dahn, Jiang or Elaheh has decided that from now on they'll be Steve, Scarlett or Taylor, just to keep things simple.

It’s humbling to see the effort these young people are making. Often they’re away from home for the first time in their lives, propelled into a strange and not always friendly world of cash-chomping services, alien food and onerous referencing conventions, all in a language that they’re still struggling to follow.

I’ve worked with Iraqi students whose families are back home in cities besieged by ISIS forces; first-time fathers who won’t lay eyes on a newborn child until they’ve completed the studies that will support their family’s future; young couples juggling cleaning jobs, study and childcare, and countless sons and daughters who carry with a kind of petrified stoicism the weighty expectations of parents back in Indonesia, Iran or Venezuela, whose life-savings are being pumped into their courses.

I want to salute these hopeful, globe-trotting scholars in their endeavours, and to entreat them, even as they set out on their overseas adventure and integrate with a new life and culture, to keep hold of their own identities and names.

And I speak as one who is far from enamoured with his own. I mean - Ian - what’s to love in such an amorphous grunt? Attempts to modify it according to Aussie principles do not serve it well. I-o, for example, sounds like the braying of a donkey with a speech impediment.

But those three letters, that amorphous grunt - that’s who I am, the first word I learned to write (how thankful I was at the time not to be called, say, Nathaniel).

I’m as attached to it as firmly as were the little labels to the inside of my primary school gym kit (more firmly, in truth - Mum was never much for sewing).

Iron man

Despite its brevity, the name Ian can easily get mangled in the non-English-speaking mouth. I’ve often answered to Iron or Yan.

But when I was living and working in Japan, and my co-workers and students struggled with my handle, no one ever urged me to exchange it for Eito or Daichi, because that would have been lazy or even insulting.

It’s the whiff of Anglocentric elitism in the name-game that’s played out in the language centres of Australia that gives me the heebie-jeebies. Why should someone’s name be considered a dispensable appendage just because it comes from Thailand and has seven tricky syllables?

In recent years, I’m happy to say, I’ve noticed something of a shift. More of the students I meet and teach are standing their ground, not buckling under pressure to rebrand themselves with monikers that are more Aussie-friendly, but smiling patiently as their teachers and classmates wrestle with the verbal contortions required in speaking those they were born with.

It’s about time.

More of the students I meet and teach are standing their ground, not buckling under pressure to rebrand themselves with monikers that are more Aussie-friendly.

Because its not only economic benefits that international students bring. Their outlook, the diversity of their backgrounds and the extraordinary energy with which they pursue their goals here enrich our campuses and broader society.

Tomorrow, I’ll be teaching a group of undergraduates from China, Japan, Vietnam, Oman, Colombia, Italy and Nepal, and there won’t be a Steve, Scarlett or Taylor among them.

I’ll do my very best to get their names right, because that’s my job, and they’re my fellow human beings.

I’ll even try not to mind when they call me Iron.

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