Korean names are not easy to get the hang of for a waygook (foreigner), at least not initially. Almost all have three syllables and many sound similar. Deciphering one students name from the hundreds is often a headache many ESL teachers will avoid by bestowing English names on the students.
Some let the students pick their own names, which can lead to comical classes with students called Ronaldo, Messi and Hulk. I have a 5th grade girl who insists I call her Sting-ray.
This practice isn’t something I’m entirely comfortable with. I recall my own schooldays when teachers would mistakenly call a student by the name of their older brother or cousin. One such incident that sticks in the mind is when my English teacher Miss Rocks called a student John.
“John’s my brother”, he replied.
“Ah whist you, you know what I mean! It’s the same thing!” she retorted in frustration.
“I suppose you’re right Mister Rocks!” he quipped.
He was an instant hero in everyone’s eyes. Miss Rocks may not have saw the humor the rest of the class did but she certainly learnt the boy’s name after that.
Giving Korean students an English name just to make my own life easier is tempting but I’ve made a mission to learn my students Korean names as best I can, which hasn’t always been easy…
The laughter erupted around the room.
I was used to this by now and so I stood there, with a helpless smile upon my face as they giggled loudly, before slowly bringing themselves under control.
“Is that wrong?”, I asked, aiming my plea for guidance to the one girl I knew would definitely understand.
“No. It’s Ki Hyun”, she responded in her American twang.
A tall, slender 6th grader, she was the eldest sibling of four in the small rural school of Seobyeok.
Just like her younger sister in the 3rd grade, she is my trusted translator. The family spent three years on the US island territory of Saipan and so now the girls are my co-teachers in their class, in the absence of an actual co-teacher.
“Ki Hee-un?!” I echoed, prompting more laughter.
“No, keee hYYuuuuuun!!”
For months I’ve wondered how to offer this girl any kind of mental challenge as she is practically fluent in her Americanized brogue. Today, she is teaching me.
Apparently, it would seem, the student we are waiting for is Che Ki Hyun.
In Korea, the family name is listed before the first name. So from a Western point of view, this would be Mr Ki Hyun Che. Dropping the formality, we can refer to students Korean names without the family moniker. In this case, the boy would be called Ki Hyun.
Although I didn’t have a lot of time to truly study the country I was moving to, I was well aware of this aspect long before touching down in Korea. However, somewhere in the chaos of meeting hundreds of students across my four schools, this boy’s name got scrambled.
For two months, I had been calling this kid ‘Cheki’, which is like calling Joseph Bloggs, “Blogjo”, or calling Heather Dickson “Dickhea”…
As the realization dawned upon me, Cheki walked in amidst the laughter.
Feeling like a bit of a ‘dickhea’ I promptly apologized in Korean.
He was a bright kid, so hopefully he understood.
As the year went on, I found ways of learning more names. I often take advantage of test times or any opportunity where the students wrote their Korean names down.
The students are usually keen to learn how to write the romanized version of their Korean name.
I’ve tricked a few into writing their name down. This way I learn it without having to ask for the tenth time and try to awkwardly mimic their speech.
It’s definitely good to be able to call on kids by name when they’re not paying attention or if you want them to answer a question. If ever I’m in doubt, a pointed finger usually does the trick but my mission to learn every name has been a large success. That being said, there are still a few that confuse me with their similarity to others.
Perhaps I’ll just stick to the old Irish slang, “Hi you, with the head!”