Say My Name

Beyoncé and I have so much in common: our love for Texas, mutual respect for Sir Jay-Z and difficult-to-pronounce names. Now, I admit that Queen Bey (with 17.2+ million albums sold) might now be a household name. However, I’m confident that 8-year-old Beyoncé and I lived the same life.

Stranger: Hi, little girl. What’s your name?
Me: Phuong
Stranger: What?
Me: Phuong
Stranger: Thong?
Stranger: Well, now! I’ve never heard that before!
Me: (silence)

What's in a name?
Exhibit A

As an adult, I expect mispronunciations and interesting coffee orders (Exhibit A). So, why am I talking about this? As a bilingual speech-language pathologist, I’m lucky. I get to work alongside children, adults and families from diverse backgrounds. Speaking and hearing another language is a gift, and I love hearing the tones and rules of many tongues. I am also privy to names that are uncommon in the United States, and this means I hear the commentary.

Recently, I read over 500 comments made by professionals in our field who listed “funny names” of students they’ve served. This was hurtful and unacceptable, and I want to talk about it.


Why Are Names Important

As someone who grew up with a name not common in the United States, I can recount numerous occasions when peers and teachers let me know I was different. I come from a father who fought in South Vietnam, served as a POW and navigated 56 people from his home country on a wooden boat. I come from a mother who got onto that boat, persevered for 11 days and gave birth to me after the boat landed in Hong Kong. I have always known that my name means “going in the right direction,” and this brought my parents joy and solace. I say this because all names are chosen for a personal, individualized reason, and those stories must be honored.

Names are important because they are attached to a human we serve, and it’s a word the child will hear and say repeatedly. We are lucky be in a profession that provides children with ways to communicate, advocate, and empower.

Tips for Remembering Names

1. Decide to Remember Make a conscious decision to remember the name. Take responsibility for this objective and push aside dialogue that does not yield accountability (e.g., too hard, bad memory)

2. Pay Attention Listen for the person’s name. Be deliberate about it. Listen to the syllables, the sounds, the cadence. If you forget during the time you’re together, ask again. “I’m so sorry. Tell me your name again.”

3. Practice You practice a name by using/thinking/writing it repeatedly. When you hear the name, practice saying it aloud. Then, say it quietly in your head. As you talk to the child, use his name in conversation. When you ask a question or make a request, begin by saying the child’s name. After a session, write it down phonetically.

4. Brain Associations The brain likes connections. Use a visual or a rhyme to help you remember. For me, I now say, “Phuong. It rhymes with Hong Kong. It’s where I was born.” When I met my birthing coach Siobhan (sounds like “shu-von”), I imagined her “shoving” a “Von Trapp” child up the stairs.

Moving Forward

What's in a name?
Exhibit B

In February of 2014, I went into a coffee shop. Then, the moment came. “What’s the name on the order?” I told him. “How do you spell that?” I told him. I received my coffee, and I left. The next day, I walked in. The same gentleman looked at me, “Good morning, Phuong.” I smiled. Then, I received my coffee, and he remembered how to spell it. It was a glorious morning, and I have the proof (Exhibit B).  Doc, the gentleman, made an effort, and it was surely meaningful.

In conclusion, SLPs, may our children know that their names are valued and will serve them well.

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