Entrepreneur creates website to help Chinese avoid “strange” English names

Entrepreneur creates website to help Chinese learners of the English language steer clear of English names that might sound strange.

BEIJING, CHINA (RECENT – APRIL 8, 2015) (REUTERS) – Over twenty Chinese people from various backgrounds meet on a nightly basis at an English conversational group, also known as an “English Corner”, held in a dusty, crowded apartment in a suburb of northeast Beijing.

At the beginning of each session, members introduce themselves by name.

“My English name is the Karate, because I learned the Tai Chi, Kung Fu, so when we joined the foreigners’ activities, they gave me the name the Karate. I think that is okay,” says Karate Yang, a 65 year-old retiree.

“My name is Faye. I select(ed) this name because its pronunciation is the same as my Chinese name,” says Faye Cheng, a Beijing-based athletic trainer.

Both Karate and Faye are among a number of English language learners in China who have chosen their own English names.

It is considered customary in China, and many other countries that do not use the Roman alphabet, to choose an English name when picking up the English language.

It has also become widely understood as necessary to choose an English name considering the difficulties some foreigners unaccustomed to the tonal language have in pronouncing Chinese names.

Traditionally, name selection in China is an often daunting task – one that is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture with a specific set of rules for what is appropriate.

However, there is no such tradition when it comes to selecting an English name, and very few resources are available to explain what is considered “appropriate” for English name selection.

According to official Chinese state media quoting a senior education official, there are some 300 million people who have either studied or are currently studying English in China, most of whom rarely come in contact with foreign instructors.

English language learners have found themselves choosing what would be considered “unusual” names to the native English speaker.

It is, for example, common to choose names that refer to inanimate objects when choosing a Chinese name, but not common in the reverse.

Zhou Wei, a Chinese teacher, said that her former English name felt like it caused a communication barrier between herself and foreign friends and students.

“The (English name) I had before, the meaning in Chinese was ‘stone’, in English it’s ‘Stone’. But later I heard other people say that this name is a little weird, very few people use it. A foreign friend told me this. So I hope I can have a pretty good and not weird, name which fits various circumstances,” said Zhou.

She used an English website called bestenglishname.com to help her select the name “Sophia”.

The website’s main feature is an English name generator, which provides users with a platform to select an English name based on personal preference and other information, all for a fee of 15 yuan (U.S. $2.42).

The website, which is becoming increasingly popular according to Chinese social media sites like Weibo, allows customers to search a name and find explanations as to why or why not it might be appropriate to choose.

Lindsay Jernigan, the Shanghai-based developer of bestenglishname.com, said that her inspiration for the website came from her encounters with Chinese colleagues at a previous job in China. Despite her colleagues’ high level of professionalism, Jernigan said that many of their sometimes outlandish English names in fact affected their relationships with foreign clients and colleagues.

“So I decided that there must be some missing link here, and I looked online, and there is no reliable resource available for people choosing English names. So I decided that it was a pretty big problem, hurting a lot of people’s relationships, and possibly futures, so I decided to try to create a solution,” said Jernigan.

Jernigan said that many of her clientele are interested in choosing a new English name before going abroad for work.

Since the launch of its current form in March of this year, bestenglishname.com has already attracted around 18,000 users in the past month, she said.

Professor Jin Limin, a linguist at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said that when it comes to name selection for non-native speakers, especially for Chinese learning English, there is a major cultural divide.

“Non-native speakers don’t understand cultural subtleties, which leads to this phenomenon. But at least they are expressing a sort of attitude which shows they are trying to be close to this (foreign) culture. So I think that if native speakers were more tolerant about this so-called ‘weird’ phenomenon, they would be a bit more understanding towards it,” said Jin.

Jin said that Chinese are not the only ones to choose unusual names when studying a foreign language. Indeed, foreigners learning Chinese are not immune to selecting strange names themselves, she said.

Although Jin and other experts say more and more Chinese have started opting to stick with their Chinese name instead of choosing an additional English name, many students on universities campuses in Beijing said that they still attach importance to selecting an English name.

“My English name is Minastirith – M-I-N-A-S-T-I-R-I-T-H . This is the name of the White City in the movie ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Minastirith. (I selected this name) because I especially like this movie,” said university student Minastirith Huang.

Echo Wen said that she selected the same English name as that of her favourite science fiction author.

“My English name is Echo – E-C-H-O. I used to really like an author named San Mao, and her English name is Echo, so (I chose this name),” said Echo.

With an educational sector which is still rapidly expanding, China holds one of the largest populations of English language learners in the developing world.