It’s the beginning of a new course, and you’re very excited to meet your new students…until you see their names. Wanghaoxuan? Zhuhaoxi? You don’t know how to pronounce Chinese names! In class, you know you’re butchering the pronunciation because the students have no idea who you are calling on. You finish the lesson feeling embarrassed and disheartened.
Having an English name has actually been common in China since the 1970s. This practice may be in part to help foreigners who have difficulties pronouncing Chinese names but is also a reflection of the Chinese tradition of having multiple names and nicknames. Chinese parents may choose an English name for their young child, but when the child is older, he or she may decide to change it. While Alo7’s partner schools encourage students to use an English name for a fully immersive experience, some older students use their Chinese name. Of course, no tutor intentionally wants to make their students feel bad by mispronouncing names. Getting names right helps build trust and rapport between you and your students. But since Chinese names can be quite different than ones we are familiar with, this can be a challenge.
In order to learn how to pronounce Chinese names, we need to learn how to read pinyin, the Romanized alphabet of Chinese sounds. Yoyo Chinese, an online Chinese education platform, has a pronunciation chart with video and audio examples of every sound in Chinese. She also has a YouTube playlist that provides more explanations and examples. For Alo7 tutors, Amber Lu from the Academic team hosted a broadcast meeting for tutors to learn how to pronounce Chinese names. This useful video can be accessed from the Resources tab on your tutor page.
These vowels will follow these rules with some exceptions. For example, when you see “ian” or “yan” the pronunciation is NOT “ee-ahh-an” but as you would say in the word “Indian.” Another exception is the “e” when said together with ie, ue and ye. Here it sounds more like the “e” sound found in yes.
The ü is an additional vowel sound found in Chinese. When preceded by j, q, x, or y the umlaut (the two dots) is not written. However, the sound is the same. For example, Amber says “xu” sounds like “she” before rounding your lips to finish with the “oo” sound.
Some consonants are confusing because they have very different sounds than what we read in English.
When these consonants are followed by “i” such as zi, ci or qi, the vowel does not make its normal sound. Instead, Amber says to make a zzz sound like a buzzing bee. So “zi” sounds like “dszzz” or “ci” sounds like “tszzz.” Another common cluster is “zhi.” When making the zzz sound, you should try to curl your tongue to the top of your mouth.
Breaking down the names:
Sometimes, the students’ names are often displayed as one long name, like Wanghaoxuan. How can we know the first from the last name? Tutors may ask their students to write their name using a chat function or on the screen. It’s helpful to remember that most Asian names are listed with the family name first. According to The Chairman’s Bao, a news-based graded reader for Chinese language learners, the most common Chinese names are:
1. Wang 6. Yang
2. Li 7. Huang
3. Zhang 8. Zhao
4. Lui 9. Wy
5. Chen 10. Zhou
So if you see these names at the beginning, you can guess that these are the family names.
You may have noticed that students often introduce themselves with their full names. Addressing others using both first and family name is the norm in Chinese society. Erin Yan, another member of the Academic Team, explains that in her experience, “Chinese teachers always call their students by their full names.” It’s OK to call them using their first name only, but she says “it’s just not very common to see in the Chinese classroom setting.”
As mentioned earlier, tones are a crucial part of knowing how to pronounce Chinese names correctly. If you use the incorrect tone, you could be saying an entirely different word! Pinyin uses accent marks or sometimes numbers after the syllable (such as jun4) to indicate which tone to use. ChinesePod, a Mandarin Chinese language course, has a lesson about tones with audio that is very useful for hearing the differences and practicing on your own.
Unfortunately, without the tone indicators, even native speakers have difficulty knowing which tone to use. To help, Amber gave several popular Chinese girls names and boys names during her meeting. You may notice your students have these common Chinese names and you can practice in advance.
Boys: Hòng, Xù, Chén, Guàn, Tíng, Huī, Gāng, Hàn, Yì, Yàn, Wén, Jùn, Fán, Rán, Yŭ, Rui, Hán
Girls: Qí, Yú, Zuĕ, Jing, Wén, Xī, Xīn, Wăn, Zhuó, Yún, Yán, Lin, Róng, Xuán, Miào, Yíng
Tutors can also contact Alo7’s tutor support team to help with pronunciation. They may be able to help break down the names phonetically or send the names with the accented syllables so you can practice before your classes. You may also review your classes and replay the video when students make their introductions so you can hear the correct pronunciation and tone.
Chinese pronunciation is not easy, but the effort can really make a difference in your class. Not only does it make communicating with the students easier, but the students will also feel respected and comfortable coming to their English lessons.
I started teaching English abroad after graduating from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts with a degree in English Literature. Although I originally planned to teach in Cambodia for a year, I discovered I had a passion for helping students around the world achieve their academic, professional and personal goals through language learning. I’ve been an Alo7 tutor since April 2017 and am currently living in South America.
I am Chinese-Japanese American, but sadly, I’m not trilingual. I grew up in a relatively “Western” household–no Tiger Moms but plenty of fried rice and a healthy dose of Asian guilt. My favorite part of English teaching is getting the opportunity to learn about my students’ daily lives, traditions and customs, so I’m very excited to be writing about Chinese culture on the Alo7 blog!