Why giving “Spanish Names” in Spanish class has unintended consequences

What was once a very common practice in Spanish classrooms has now become a bit Why giving your students controversial. While many teachers are choosing to no longer give students random “Spanish names”, the practice still continues. But those that continue to give names may not realize the unintended and harmful consequences.

While I don’t know the true origins of this practice, I can guarantee it was done with the best intentions. In that time, Spanish truly was a “foreign language” to a majority of the country. The Internet didn’t exist yet and connections to the world were limited. White, American-born people who could speak Spanish were few and far between.

Fast forward to the 2000s and now many programs are no longer part of a “foreign language” department but rather a “world languages”. The internet has allowed us to connect with classrooms around the world using Skype and social media and latino artists are a huge part of our entertainment industry. Thanks to the work done by those early teachers who inspired a new generation of learners who became fluent in the language, the number of Spanish speakers is not limited to people of Hispanic origins.

So, what’s the big deal? Many will argue that by assigning random* names to students sends the wrong message. That message is:

Your name is not good enough to speak Spanish. “Brittany” isn’t the name of someone who speaks Spanish. You need a “Spanish-sounding name” to speak Spanish. You need a new identity. Your identity isn’t valid for a someone who wants to speak Spanish. Only people who have “true” Hispanic names are real Spanish speakers.

Brittany isn't the name of someone who speaks Spanish.
The following was posted in the comments and I liked it so much I asked her permission to post it in the blog. We can’t based “Latinidad” on someone’s name.
Stereotyping based on names

Imagine the follow scenarios and tell me your reaction:

  • Juan arrives to the United States from his native Mexico. On his first day of class at his new school, the teacher says “I can’t pronounce your name. I’m just going to call you John instead.
  • Silvia is the daughter of Mexican parents but is not fluent in Spanish. In High School she enrolls in Spanish class to learn the language of her family. On the first day, her teacher says she can pick a new name.
  • Confused on why her name isn’t good enough, Silvia is even more dumbfounded when a student from another class tells her that her new name in Spanish class is “Silvia”.
  • Alexandra is a Hispanic American. Her name is not Alejandra. Her mother chose her name and is proud of it. But Alexandra’s Spanish teacher thinks she should choose a name that “sounds more Hispanic” or at least answer to “Alejandra”.
  • Teddy is a freshman in Spanish class. His teacher lets him pick a name from a list. He sees the name Nacho and thinks it sounds hilarious. He picks it and every time someone says his name, he laughs.
  • A teacher continues to mispronounce a student’s name despite being corrected by the student. Other teachers in the building try correcting this teacher when she says the name because they know it is important to say a child’s name correctly.

Your name is who you are. It is part of your identity. We shouldn’t ask kids to choose a new identity just because it’s “fun”. Can you imagine a math teacher assigning new names to his students of famous mathematicians or the names of math terms? No, because that would be ridiculous.

Your name doesn’t change when you go to another country. We want to promote interculturality and we want students to know that THEY can and should be interacting with other cultures as themselves. We want students to know that “Brittany” can speak Spanish and that you can speak ANY language with WHATEVER name.

Without fake names, we can get to know the real student. We can connect to them and build authentic relationships with them.

*Some people have wondered what about nicknames or common translations of names? What if my student’s name is Andrew and I call him Andrés? If you have built a relationship with that student and the student is ok with this nickname, then yes, by all means, use it. But just because it works, doesn’t mean it is appropriate. One teacher commented on twitter how she HATED when people changed her real name to something similar. It is all about creating relationships. Using Spanish pronunciation is a more authentic and natural way to address students .

If your name is Anglo sounding you can't speak Spanish   No Hispanic country studying English gives American names

Completely disagree with us? Tell us in the comments. Agree? What was your major motiviation for not using “Spanish names”?

About SpanishPlans

Spanish Educator, with focus on acquisition Educator Enthusiast I love learning about and sharing culture.
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30 Responses to Why giving “Spanish Names” in Spanish class has unintended consequences

  1. Disagree. No harm. No foul. Don’t overthink it.

    • Anonymous says:

      I agree with you Rebecca. This is over thinking. I feel it’s part of making it part of a cultural experience for the student.

  2. Kelly says:

    I teach in an inner city school where students have very limited exposure to the world outside their neighborhoods. We ask our students to choose a name that they like in language class. We want them to learn about other cultures, and naming rituals are a big part of that. I talk about this and tell them that they are not required to choose a name. 95% of them choose a name and love it– in a world where they are very boxed in, it gives them a sense of freedom to be someone else.

  3. Kelly says:

    Also- to your comment that in other countries, students don’t receive Anglo-sounding names- when I was in college, I lived in the international dorms. All of the exchange students from China had Anglo names… and these are names that they had used in China. I had a similar experience when I visited several schools in Southeast Asia last year.

  4. Megan says:

    And there I was, being a Spanish teacher that doesn’t do the names thing because memorizing ONE name per student is hard enough for me. Calling them a different name than what’s in the grade book makes it hard to remember who’s who.

  5. Amy O'Leary says:

    For true beginners, differentiating a name among all of the language they hear and read (reading skills vary) is very difficult – the new language just sounds like a stream of unintelligible noise, so being able to know what is an authentic name is useful. Allowing students the OPTION to choose a name is fine. Some will, some won’t and there is no penalty either way. Also, students that choose the name “Nacho” can learn that it is a valid nickname for Ignacio.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Wow! This is some over-sensitivity! I don’t give Spanish names, as Megan commented because it’s too hard to remember. Besides, some kids didn’t want a Spanish name. When I abandoned the practice, I’d get comments like, “Why don’t we get Spanish names?” It seems some kids like it and some don’t. I’m not a fan because I have difficulty remembering their real name, and when their parent comes to see me during Open House, I have no idea who they are talking about, LOL.

  7. Maestra says:

    I appreciate your perspective, examples and your stance on the importance of names. If a teacher decides that choosing a Spanish name is right for his or her class, it is important that the students buy-in and that the students understand the purpose of choosing a Spanish name (whatever the reason may be). I personally never had my students choose a Spanish name but I am not opposed to this practice. I couldn’t think of a good reason why students should use a second name for a class.

  8. Michelle B. says:

    I agree with the post, though I used to do it. I now think it’s a waste of time and the negatives by far outweigh any positives. If a student asks me about getting Spanish names, I ask them what their math and science names are. End of conversation. A colleague, however, is considering having her students make puppets out of lunch sacks and allowing them to choose Spanish names for the puppets. I haven’t decided if I want to do that or not but that might be a compromise.

  9. Julieta says:

    I loved getting a new name in High school. I didn’t like my English name. It is difficult for Hispanics to pronounce. It is easier on them to use my Hispanic name. I loved getting to be a different person, not the nerd that was picked on. I think some kids need the option to “become” someone else.

    I think the picking of a different name also helps keep you in the language as well. It discourages using English. Your mind flips less.

    Now I don’t force picking a name but I think there are still good reasons to do it.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I give my students Spanish names on day 2. Usually it’s a translation of their real name or something similar sounding. It reinforces their name to recall it better. I also tell them they are creating a new identity as they learn a new language and will be two people in one! Being of Hispanic heritage my mom used to always rename our friends who didn’t have Spanish names anyway! Their new Spanish name flows better in conversation. So this isn’t hard. I love renaming them and they seem to like it too!!

  11. S.E.D. says:

    For 12 years, I did the name thing. Some students liked it, some didn’t. We talked about the names and any associated nicknames. It’s amazing how jokes about the nicknames Nacho or Chuy stop when you explain the nicknames. I stopped using names last year because I couldn’t remember their English names when I’d run into their parents. Of course the parents and students in last year’s classes were upset that I didn’t do Spanish names. Over the summer, I was invited to a high school 10 year reunion and my former students would come up to me and re-introduce themselves using their Spanish names and then share with me and their spouses or significant others how they had selected their name, and commented about how much they had enjoyed it. This was at a very ethnically and socio-economically diverse school in Los Angeles. While the article makes some good points, it is being overly sensitive. If you treat using names the same way some teachers use Fiesta Fridays to simply have a class party, then yes, it can send the wrong message and be harmful. But if you give it some context and incorporate it into a lesson, then it’s a plus.

  12. Sra T says:

    Completely disagree. It is simply a way for students to fully immerse themselves in the language and embrace the culture. They pick their names, though. And, they even have last names and turn in their papers with their full name. It is absolutely one of their favorite things that we do. While I applaud the argument, it is definitely overyhinkung it

  13. Maggie Gohdes Nance says:

    I mostly disagree. The kids can see the interrelatedness of names. We go to behind the name and look up their names in all the lists of names. They are generally interested in the cognates and what their name is all around the world. I have a few kids that feel strongly about keeping their name, but most are super excited about it. It exposes the kids to 40 different names, and takes care of the problem of having 4 Aidens and 3 Kaylas in one class. I think if you do it well, and give the kids the opportunity to pick their exact name in Spanish, or to choose anything else if they want, you aren’t squashing their identity or telling them that you have to be Catalina instead of Kayla to speak Spanish. It’s just a fun jump into the world. -Margarita

  14. Karin Tinsley says:

    Some of these comments are blowing my mind.

    We live in a world where we are all connected. If you want to expose students to 40 different names in Spanish, use Fligrid to connect your students with real students with real names. We shouldn’t be changing Johnnys names to Juanito bc A. Johnny may already be a Latino B. You may find a Johnny in another country who’s name in actually Johnny.

    By using stereotypical names in Spanish class you are pigeonholing Latinos to fit this mold. Would you ever use Julesca or Yarismar as a name replacement?

    Better yet would you ever use Karin as a name replacement? Probably not. My name is Karin. I am Colombian. When a Spanish teacher tried to change my mind, I had to eloquently (in 7th grade and in Spanish) tell her that she doesn’t need to change names because she doesn’t know who is Latino, and a name may or may not be as Latino as the American spanish teacher wants it to be.

  15. MrsSraJ says:

    I am thrilled to see this post! I have been arguing against giving kids Spanish-sounding names for years! Your name is your name. My name ¨Margaret¨ derives from ¨pearl¨; the supposed Spanish derivative ¨Margarita¨ is a daisy. Two different words – not a translation. My friend and colleague Joe is from Madrid. He is Joe; not Joseph, not José. When my students asked what their name is in Spanish, I explain that there are equivalent names in many languages, and the reason for them – mostly biblical references. Respect people and use their correct names. It´s insulting not to do so.

  16. Ellen Roberts says:

    I remember when I moved to South America for my job. The names were names I was not familiar with, and oftentimes hard to pronounce. The nick-names also challenged me. When I returned to the USA and started teaching Spanish classes, I allowed students to choose a Spanish name and felt it was a good practice to help students become familiar with these names. Now that we have so much exposure to so many people with these names, I don’t feel it is so necessary and I agree with this post. In addition, the names are no longer “Spanish” names — they are just names.

  17. Cynthia Aleman says:

    I don’t believe in assigning random names nor allowing them to choose their name. I use the names their parents gave them if possible just translated or I choose a name that is similar. For example Brittany would be Betania. Some names are very phonetic in Spanish and I may keep their names. I love the challenge of renamiing them and giving them a duo-personality as they learn their second language. I also don’t have to worry about mispronouncing their real name! Their Spanish name also flows better in conversation and the kids seem to love it! I usually wait for day 2 to name them as some kids go by middle names or nicknames. If they don’t like the name I’ve given them I ask them to sleep on it and let me know tomorrow. It is seldom when I change it. They ask me if they have to write their Spanish name on their papers. They don’t.. They often use their Spanish name. And sometimes it even becomes their new nickname outside the classroom!.

  18. lamaestraglebe says:

    OMG. This conversation has been going on for at least 2 academic years! As the song says “Let IT GO! You can always make Spanish names OPTIONAL. Give students a choice. Now move on.

    • Karin says:

      The conversation needs to continue to happen because teachers are still making it mandatory. Plus even the option can be detrimental to Latinos. Proper names of people paces and things generally do not change in other language any way. Plus! Any one with any name can be fluent in a foreign language, why set the precedent that you have to be a different person with a different name to learn and be fluent in another language?

      That’s a kin to saying we’ve been talking about racism for years now. Let’s let it go. No. It’s still an issue, we as Spanish teachers need to educate our students that anyone with any name can speak a foreign language.

    • SpanishPlans says:

      People have been complaining for years when people use blackface. They should just move on. It’s a person’s choice is they want to wear blackface or not.

  19. – It’s not “just a name”. It’s MY name. It’s connected to my heart, and I want you to use it when you talk to me. Do you want to know the #1 way to win a student over and get SLA buy-in? Show them you care. “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” Dale Carnegie.
    – My white cousin is named Keisha. She was always embarrassed because people would tell her she needed a name like Michelle or Beth. I’m not going to tell my students that if they want to speak Spanish they need a name like José or Margarita, because I would also be telling all hispanics what their names should be. By the way, not all black kids need names like Shanice and Darnell.
    – Some people compromise by making these names “optional”. We are the language and culture teachers, kids are not capable of making these decisions for themselves in the name of fun, and it’s up to us to create an authentic and equitable experience.

  20. Claudette says:

    I studied in Spain while in college and my host family had difficulty pronouncing my name so instead they used the Spanish equivalent of “Claudia”. I was not offended in the least. I actually felt more accepted. As a Spanish teacher I have allowed my students to choose Hispanic names from a list. I have found that it makes them more familiar with traditional names and how to pronounce them correctly which in turns allows them to address people with Hispanic names with respect. I do understand the issues you have mentioned, but feel those can be addressed by allowing students the choice to use an Hispanic name in class and by teaching students that many Hispanic today choose non-traditional Hispanic names. Many Hispanics that I have spoken to about more Anglo sounding names in Hispanic culture have said that they do it so that their children will be more accepted in the United States. Shouldn’t we be teaching our children to be accept people for how they act and not for where they are from? We should also be instilling each day in all of our students a “can do” attitude towards learning other languages that is not dependent on something as small as a name. I hope that my opinions and experience do not offend anyone, I am simply stating my point of view and will definitely be reminded to consider all of my students’ personal wishes in this regard.

  21. Elena says:

    In my experience, kids enjoy to Know how is their names in Spanish and how is the writing (with tilde or not).

  22. Lourdes Eckstein says:

    I totally disagree also. One reason I find useful is that the Spanish name gives a student the opportunity to be someone totally different. To try on a new identity. and step out of who they are. My students look forward to picking a Spanish name and I see nothing wrong with this practice.

  23. Delica says:

    New to the forum. I gather that teachers will continue to do what they want because “it makes students feel. . .” and gives students an opportunity to become someone else. My name is part of my identity. If you tell me it is too hard to pronounce, remember Rochelle, but you choose Rosita for me or ask me to choose a new name, you might be erasing part of who I am and inadvertently telling me that my name is not enough, maybe not even worthy of your committing it to memory. Rosita might work best, but the question is “Best for whom?”
    Don’t be too upset, Sra. Consuelo, when students call you Ms. Anzuelo among their peers. Hooray! to the 9th grade teacher who heard my name the very first time and told me that it sounded like an artist’s name! (I believed her.) I come from a Spanish-speaking country, did all my studies there, and don’t remember ever that any one of my English teachers told or asked my classmates or me to play a game that included trading names.

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