Donders Wonders Blog

Here are the reasons why you trip on unusual names

This post is also available in Dutch.

Do you feel bad for still not correctly pronouncing the name of that international friend of yours? Then this blog is for you!

Imagine yourself in a social event like drinks after work, a dinner with a group of friends, or a birthday party. You’re about to be introduced to someone! Both of you say your respective names, but you don’t really get the other person’s name. It’s a foreign name that you have never heard before. Slightly embarrassed, you ask that person to repeat the name again, but you still cannot say it properly. And when you try to repeat the name, it just sounds totally off!

You’ve likely been in this awkward situation before, especially if you live in an international environment. Some foreign names are easy to pronounce, while others may take some time to get right—but there are also those names that people just can’t pronounce. That is precisely the case with my name: João.

To give you some context, João is probably the most common and boring Portuguese name. It’s so common that it is almost mandatory for a person with this name to have a second one next to it, like Pedro or Miguel. But once the name João crosses borders, it becomes one of the most intriguing ones because non-portuguese speakers have a very hard time getting its pronunciation.

Obviously, such situations are not exclusive to the Portuguese language. You can probably find equivalent examples in all the 7111 known living languages. There are some interesting examples in the Dutch language, like the last name “Galesloot”, which is almost unpronounceable for non-Dutch speakers (me included). Not even the English language is an exception. Despite many years of daily English-speaking, some of us still struggle to pronounce the “th” sound. Saying “think” instead of “sink” can sometimes be very challenging.

Some names are just so hard to understand!
Image courtesy of NDE and Pixabay (CC0 1.0).

Fortunately, language researchers are here to save us from the embarrassment that comes with mispronouncing names. To achieve a perfect pronunciation, you sometimes have to ignore the skills you developed when you learned your mother tongue (and other languages you may know), as you have to practice the new sounds and rules that come with that little piece of foreign language. Making this shift becomes particularly challenging once you’re an adult, since the adult brain is mostly equipped to learn new languages based on past learning experiences.

Mastering new pronunciations as an adult involves overcoming many obstacles that not only manifest in speaking but also in listening. Native English speakers, for example, can easily distinguish between “sheep” and “cheap” (and “chip” or “ship”), whereas a non-native speaker may struggle with detecting differences in pronunciation between these words (click the links and give it try). The Dutch language also has quite interesting examples of words that are hard to distinguish by only listening, like “vis” (fish) and “vies” (filthy); and so as Portuguese, like “avô” (grandfather) and “avó” (grandmother).

So if you are struggling in pronouncing a peculiar international name, you can blame your lack of knowledge about the language it comes from. You can always try really hard to get a perfect pronunciation, but it may take a while. The only solution for us, owners of these weird names, is to be patient, especially if this situation applies to your co-workers, friends… or even your own partner! Doing a performance of Destiny’s Child’s Say My Name or sounding as threatening as Breaking Bad’s Walter White (SPOILER ALERT) may be entertaining, but it will not help them to get the pronunciation right. But remember: The important part is that they keep trying. Who knows if they may one day reach that perfect pronunciation.

This blog was written by João, edited by Julija and Christienne, and Dutch version translated by Felix and Jill.

Credits: Top image courtesy of surdumihail and Pixabay.

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