Friday, April 24, 2015

Language Learning: The Importance of a Name

Can you imagine what life would be like without a name? If you think about it, naming things is an essential part of human life. In large part, language exists and evolves because we are constantly naming new things and concepts in order to more easily communicate with each other.

Long ago, this naming tradition was applied to newborn babies, which is how we all get stuck with our given names at birth, whether we love them or hate them. It's certainly a handy way to distinguish one person from the hundreds of others we personally know. That said, a name can also provide us with a lot of possible information about someone, such as their place of birth or heritage, their family's religion, or even their parents' musical tastes. (I say "possible" information because you generally wouldn't expect a Mexican child to be named Vladimir or a Christian child to be named Mohammad, but it's certainly possible.) Many people also feel that their names are symbolic of who they are, to the point that some young adults legally change their names when they feel more like a "Katie" than a "Martha".

Let's name this adorable Russian Blue cat "Andrei".
So what does all of this have to do with language learning? Well, back when I was in high school, a few of my favorite foreign language teachers made us choose names at the beginning of each school year in hopes that it would help us feel more connected to the cultures that spoke the languages we were learning. 

For French class, I chose the name Anaïs, which in addition to being a popular name in France, was the name of a kind French girl whose family I had lived with for a few days one summer. While I doubt that writing the name Anaïs on my homework and responding to the name in French class improved my French skills in any significant way, I will say that it did definitely make me feel more "French" sometimes. Having confidence is incredibly helpful when learning a language, so as silly as it seems, I do think that adopting a name relevant to the language you're learning can actually have some benefits.

That said, I never chose a new name for Spanish class, instead preferring to use my given name, Erica, only pronounced with a Spanish accent. It certainly didn't have the same effect as using Anaïs in French class did, but at the very least it was a small attempt to immerse myself in the culture!

If you're currently learning a foreign language, consider adopting a foreign name for learning purposes! It certainly can't hurt... perhaps you'll put more effort into your Italian studies if you pretend your name is Francesca, or improve your German pronunciation if you transform into Friedrich. You can even be silly with it - two students in my Spanish class chose the names Taco and Frijoles ("beans"), undoubtedly to the chagrin of our teacher, but both were active participants in class, which is essential when learning a language.

Have you ever adopted a new name while learning a language or living in another country? Do you feel that it helped you to feel more connected to the culture? Let us know in the comments below.