No more "English names", please

So you are teaching English. And of course you have given all of your students "English names" - if they didn't already have one. I would like to ask you a question, if you don't mind (and actually even if you do): Why?

Why would someone who is not wanted by FBI, CIA and NBA for something like wearing the wrong t-shirt want a second or even third and fourth name? What is the advantage of that? Running from a marriage?

So you are teaching English. That means you have a certain understanding of English, as well as a certain understanding of language in general, right? Mind if we have a walk? Not through the park, through language. You might want to take your jacket, we may be away for a few minutes...

I'm sure you have heard this example sentence: "The book is on the table." Boring, I know... But let's have a look at some aspects of this sentence which you might not have thought about before. So how does someone know that the book is on the table? Oh, yes, because you said so, of course.

But how does someone know what a book is, and what a table? Talking of that: What is a table? How does it look like? Can we agree that it is (I quote Wikipedia, even though there is no citation for this) "a form of furniture composed of a surface supported by a base, usually four legs"? Sounds sensible, doesn't it? And you noticed that I spoke of "a table", using an indefinite article? So there are a few of them...

For the book we can probably agree on a lot of printed papers bound to one another at one side? So looking back at the example sentence, what we actually want to express with it is "there is a bunch of printed papers being joined on one side, which is currently located on top of a surface that is supported by one to four legs". Sounds pretty complicated, but this is what we mean, what we think of when we say "the book is on the table". (I don't want to dive into the other elements of this sentence now, the nouns are work enough.)

Btw, I think you did tell your students that both "book" and "table" are nouns? And I suppose you remember that nouns are used to name "things". Did I just say "name"? Seems to be: If we can't name something, how do we want to talk about it? However, these nouns seem to apply not just to a single object, but to a whole class of identical or at least similar objects.

So when I hear the word "table", I'm sure that the table I imagine has a colour different from yours. Mine is really shiny, btw. But still, both are tables. So a noun has a semantic component, a meaning, something we think of when we hear that word.

You may have noticed that also here in Taiwan they have tables and books, though they name them slightly differently: "zhuozi" (桌子) for tables and "shu" (書) for books. And this is where dictionaries enter the game: A dictionary basically lists the words used in two different languages for the same things, having the same meanings. So a dictionary is basically just a table pairing words with identical meanings, but belonging to different languages.

And what has all this got to do with names? Well, I would like to ask for your name now, but since that is slightly impossible, let us assume please that your name is "Mike" - a nice, typical "English name". A question: What does it mean?

You never asked yourself that question? I'm sure you will be filled with pride when I tell you the meaning: Who is like God. There are however a few problems with this...

First, Mike is short for Michael, which is a name that comes from Hebrew. So much about the typical "English" name. And second, while some of them were nice fellows, I have not met a single Mike in my life who made the impression he would be in any way related to a God.

So, let's suppose we want to translate your name into another language. Translation means we will transfer a meaning, and the meaning here would be "godlike". (You don't play Quake, do you?) No, wait, if the meaning in English is "godlike", why are you called "Mike" then? Your name should already be the English translation of a Hebrew word!

Confused? Naturally. You may have noticed that names too are nouns, but they are somewhat "special", in English called proper nouns. And these may have a meaning, but that meaning is usually not related to the person a name is assigned to. Doubt? I am not into golf, but the last time I saw an image of Tiger Woods he did not quite look like either a cat or some shrubbery.

Another question: Have you ever met someone from France or have you perhaps been there yourself? How many of the French you met have an English name? Or perhaps Italians? Or Germans?

I am German, and when I tell people that I don't have an "English name", their next question usually is "So what is your German name?" Unfortunately, I don't have such either. My name comes from Scandinavia, is pretty popular in Norway or Sweden. So is it a Swedish name? Or a Norwegian one? Or better a "Scandinavian name"?

Do you understand Chinese? Then you should know that the term used in Taiwan for "English name" is "yingwen mingzi" (英文名字), which means a name written in English. You will never hear the term "yingyu mingzi" (英語名字), which would mean a name spoken in English - this term simply does not exist.

And when Taiwanese speak about "German names" they will call them "dewen mingzi" (德文名字), not "deyu mingzi" (德語名字). So the whole "English name" business is not about the language, it's about the letters the name is written in. I never needed a "Russian name" when I visited the Soviet Union, neither did I need a "Japanese name" when I was living in Japan. (Though I had one, for "special" situations.)

I had just one name until I started to study Chinese. And why did I need a "Chinese name" then? Two reasons: One is computers (Our school's administrative system is even in 2008 unable to process my real name.), the other is the strange phenomenon that Taiwanese can handle thousands of Hanzi, but are often unable (lack of practice, I'd say) to remember the few Roman characters needed for a European's name.

You see, my name is Olaf (Please don't apply English pronounciation to it, OK?), and if I went to Russia now I would just write my name as Олаф - same name, just a different script. In Japan it became オーラフ, and here in Taiwan it could be written as 歐拉夫. (But it isn't.)

It is the same name every time, just in a different script. There is no translation, only transcription. This is how names should be dealt with, and this is how names are dealt with in most parts of this planet. But there is a small island, 394x144km "large"...

And why are things so different on this small island? Quite a few people probably do not like to hear this, but many (most) Taiwanese got a few concepts regarding language wrong, and the really sad thing is that even most of the "language experts" you may encounter are following those wrong concepts. So the people who are supposed to teach language actually teach a few (basic) things incorrectly - and that is not restricted to English, it applies to Chinese too...

One concept that people here in Taiwan do not like to accept is that there is a spoken language and there is a script (characters) chosen for that language. These two are separate items, not a couple married for eternity.

A lot of countries have changed the characters they are using through the course of history. I could not quite read my grandmother's handwriting, because she only wrote partially in Latin script. Vietnam and Korea used to use the same characters as China. Vietnam now uses Latin script, while Korea developed its own.

Mongolia had to get along with Hanzi when it was part of China, now they use Cyrillic script, the same as Russia. And here comes another problem with most people in Taiwan: While they may have heard some of these, they do not actively know. What they know is this:

"I have learned Chinese. The characters I use to write Chinese are therefor 'Chinese characters' (zhongwenzi 中文字). I have learned English. They use different characters. Those are ‘English characters' (yingwenzi 英文字). There is a country nearby called Japan. I have not quite learned their language, but they use different characters. Those are 'Japanese characters' (riwenzi 日文字, sometimes also ribenzi 日本字 - characters of Japan). And there is another country nearby called Korea. They too use different characters. Those are called 'Korean characters' (hanwenzi 韓文字 - or hanguozi 韓國字, characters of Korea)."

Just look at how most people in Taiwan call the language they speak: "zhongwen" (中文). That is "written Chinese". I don't know about you, but I don't speak written text, I only write it. Funnily, there is usually a pair of names for each language, like "fayu" (法語, spoken French) and "fawen" (法文, written French), "riyu" (日語, spoken Japanese) and "riwen" (日文, written Japanese), but this does not apply every time.

There is no "zhongyu" (中語) as someone might expect to accompany "zhongwen" (中文). So, basically, people here in Taiwan only speak a written language... Yes, I know, there is "guoyu" (國語), but what is that? It's the "national language". There are classes with the same name in Japan, teaching - yes, Japanese.

The word used for Taiwanese however is "taiyu" (台語), and there is (Surprise, surprise...) no "taiwen" (台文). The same applies to "American English", now all the rage in Taiwan: There is "meiyu" (美語), but no "meiwen" (美文). (Hmm, does that mean Taiwanese think Americans can't write?) If you should happen to go to the PRC, you may notice that people there care a bit more about correct terms related to language. Though, fortunately, MoE recently decided to call the Mandarin used in Taiwan "huayu" (華語), so at least we finally have a spoken language.

Anyway, in language classes in Taiwan, the message is that there is a language and that language is intrinsically tied to its characters. And that's just not true. Latin script, the characters I am using right now, is the most widely used writing system on this planet. Lots of languages rely on this script, just look at the map.

So why would Taiwanese want an "English name"? Because foreigners can not read their name the way they usually write it: in Hanzi. So, wouldn't it be OK then if Taiwanese knew how to write their name in Latin script? Yes, that is exactly what is needed, but...

You see, due to all the misunderstandings regarding language I mentioned above, transcription systems are not seen as such in Taiwan. "Transcription" would mean that I write the same word (in this case a name) in different characters. For most Taiwanese, Latin script is "English" (since that is the only foreign language using Latin script they learned), so for them a transcription becomes a translation. This is incorrect, but very widely believed in Taiwan.

And unfortunately, nobody really wants to learn any romanisation system. In Japan, people learn Hepburn, so they know how to write their names in Latin script. In the PRC, people learn Hanyu Pinyin, so they too know how to write their names in a writing system many people will understand.

In Taiwan however, the government does not only need to invent their own "system" to emphasize their uniqueness, they do not even bother to teach it at any school. If you do not teach it, who will be able to use it then? So it will be business as usual: Students will still ask "The new foreign teacher can not read Chinese. Can you give me an English name?"

OK, so far I have tried to show you the "scientific evidence" for the whole "English name" game being wrong. Confronted with these facts, the answer I usually get from Taiwanese (and some foreigners) is that it doesn't really matter and that "it's OK if we know it" (我們知道就好。) - so it does not matter if others do not know those names. It seems however, that none of those people ever had to do a certain amount of interpreting.

I am an interpreter, teaching interpreting now and I can torture my students easily with "English names". Even if someone knows who is behind "Twinhead" (and only few know), they usually never have heard of "Powermax". And although they should know a bit about universities in Taiwan, almost nobody knows where exactly "Formosa university" is located. And I didn't even start with people's names...

Let's assume that of the 23m people roaming this small island only ten per cent have an "English name". If your name is indeed Mike, could you please use your divine powers to tell me the English name of Xiao Wanzhen? You don't know? Why?

Oh, no problem, just look it up in a dictionary! After all, dictionaries are there to help you with translations, aren't they? OK, my heaviest dictionaries only hold close to 100,000 records, so I wonder how the 2.3m "English names" (plus their equivalent "Chinese names") should fit in there, but how should I know, I'm just a foreigner living in Taiwan...

But even if there was such a dictionary (or better: a directory), it would need to be updated constantly. Did you notice how quickly people switch their "English names"? What you probably did not know: Even companies and other organisations can relatively easily change their "English name", while it is quite a hassle to change the "Chinese name". The message here: That "English name" is crap anyway, only needed for foreigners, let them guess...

And guessing (or better resigning) is what you end up with if you are an interpreter. But not only then. Imagine this: When I was working in an electronics company in Taizhong, we had a sales guy who suddenly changed his name one day. "Hey, can you call me Elvis now? I don't like my previous name any more..." I can not remember his previous name, but let's say it was Peter.

So "Peter" was known to a few foreigners at other companies. They exchanged business cards, and two months later one of them wants to call Peter. He changed his name a month ago and right after that a new guy came into the company. Peter/Elvis is not there and the new guy answers the phone. He never heard of a "Peter", so he tells the foreigner after a short check that there may have been a Peter before but that there is none now...

And this goes on and on. So if your students ask you for an "English name", please, just don't do it! If you want to teach your students something, teach them a real spelling alphabet, so people on the phone actually know whether that was a "b" or a "p" or a "d" or... And teach them romanisation of Chinese, preferably Hanyu Pinyin, since this still is the international standard (ISO-7098:1991) for writing Chinese in Latin script and may also help them when they go abroad. Otherwise they sit there in another country and have to use English in their correspondence with their parents...

Sorry, our walk took a little longer, but I hope it was worth it...