Student Spotlight: Tristan Thorne – Asian Students Using English Names ☆

Sociolinguistics has been of particular interest to Tristan Thorne, a second-year MA student in Applied Linguistics, and when the opportunity for a hypothetical research project arose in his Research Literacy class, he thought of conducting a survey on Asian students taking English names. Thorne said that the idea came from his personal experience and interest in the topic.

Tristan Thorne MA Candidate TESOL & Applied Linguistics

Having lived in Chile, Spain, and Japan before, Thorne has changed his name to adjust to the phonetic restrictions of the language of the country in which he was living. “For example, in Chile and Spain, I would pronounce my name as Tris-TAN (stress on the last syllable) so I was changing the syllable stress to the last syllable,” said Thorne. “And then I lived in Japan for two years and because Japanese doesn’t have a lot of complex syllable structure, my name was not Tristan but To-ri-so-tan (four syllables).”

Thorne also talked about his conversation with his classmate in his current program. “She’s always kind of had this frustration with whether to use her Chinese name or her English name when she’s in the classroom and how she wants to be identified as because she doesn’t feel that many English speakers can use the tones correctly. So I wanted to conduct a survey and see how different people use their names when they’re introducing themselves to native English speakers,” said Thorne. “There has been a lot of research on whether Chinese, Korean, and Japanese people have English names or not. So there is this dichotomy. You either have an English name or you don’t, but what are other ways that people can try to introduce themselves and make it easier for the self-introduction process to be successful?”

The following sections briefly explain the content and results of his survey research. Thorne’s comments are given in quotation.

Research questions

  • Q1: How do name-use strategies and the belief about the difficulty in the pronunciation of one’s non-English name by English speakers differ between Chinese, Japanese, and Korean speakers?
  • Q2: What is the relationship between these beliefs and name-use strategies?
  • Thorne defined name-use strategies in various categories, such as saying one’s name more loudly than usual, shortening one’s name, changing the syllable stress of one’s name, and making one’s name sound like an English word.

Survey Results

  • 193 participants:
    • 101 Chinese, 44 Koreans, 48 Japanese
    • 73% female, 27% male (mostly Teachers College students)
  • Sample survey question: Do you have an English name?
    • 80% of Chinese said yes, 57% of Koreans said yes, 6% of Japanese said yes.
    • “This may seem surprising, but research has shown that having an English name is not only for pragmatic reasons but also for cultural reasons.”
  • Most participants thought their names were difficult to pronounce for English speakers.
    • “There was no statistically significant difference in believing that your non-English name is difficult to pronounce across the three groups. So if that’s the case, having an English name is not just pragmatically tied, because otherwise we would have Japanese speakers using an English name because they also agree that their names are difficult for English speakers to pronounce. So this kind of substantiates the prior research.”
  • The most common name-use strategy was repeating one’s name.
    • “In terms of name-use strategies that were shared by all groups who believed that their names were difficult to pronounce, the most common strategy was having to repeat your name. There were only, out of 193 people, two respondents who selected ‘Never’ as in never having to repeat their names. So this resonated across all three groups.”
  • Unique findings for each group
    • Korean
      • A strong correlation between becoming frustrated when an English speaker mispronounces their names and having to say their names more loudly.
      • The more likely that one is to agree that one uses one’s Korean name when introducing oneself, the less likely one is to agree that Koreans who plan on permanently living in the United States should have an English name.
    • Chinese
      • More likely to agree with  shortening names
      • More likely to agree with changing sounds
      • More likely to agree with making names sound like English words (i.e. dropping tones)
    • Japanese
      • Least likely to do much of the changing of names
      • Least likely to make names sound like English words

“So this is definitely a pilot study,” said Thorne. “If I were to do this again, I would definitely conduct interviews to get more qualitative information. Understanding why some of these correlations were different among the groups between beliefs and strategies is something that I would be interested in pursuing, which would probably require qualitative data.”

Thorne also said that he would like to look specifically at the classroom environment. He said he would like to focus on questions such as “How are students introducing themselves to the teachers, and how do the teachers perceive the students introducing themselves? Do English speakers know that these Chinese, Korean, or Japanese speakers are using these strategies, and more importantly, are these strategies effective to begin with?”

“There’s a lot of sociolinguistic things we could do with power relationships in the classrooms that I think would be compelling in the ESL environment,” he said.

“Eventually I would like to pursue a PhD,” said Thorne. “For me, I’m more interested in the sociolinguistic aspects of second language acquisition. So issues of acculturation, assimilation, imagined communities, and acts of participation in the classroom are where I see myself going for in the future.”

Contributed by Jamie Kim
Arts & Humanities Staff Writer