What’s in a name?

October 10, 2010

One of the best ways that I have found of motivating learners is to get them “hooked” onto the culture right from the beginning.  The revised KS3 framework and the accompanying exemplification materials has stacks of practical ideas for developing skills in learners; one of the examples for the intercultural understanding strand looks at exploring what’s in a name.  What are the most popular names in the TL country?  Why are these popular?  How have they changed over time and why? Whilst the authors of the framework probably had European languages in mind when they were writing these materials the same questions and activities can equally well be applied to Chinese.  So here are some suggestions:

  • Giving a student a TL name (or indeed encouraging them to choose their own) immediately gets them into the “feel” of the culture of that country.
  • Pupils can chose their own Chinese name from a list, based on the particular attributes they like.  This website can generate a Chinese name based on your English name but taking account of whether you want to stress a particular attribute, such as beauty and appearance, wealth and fortune or even mind and intelligence! 
  • The Chinesetools website enables pupils not only to generate a Chinese name based on their English name, but also to create a seal (as in the example of my own name above), a piece of calligraphy, or to put it on a painting (there is even a choice of background!)
  • As with European languages names on their own can be used to practise pronunciation and reinforce phonic patterns.
  • Names can be read out for learners to identify the tone.
  • Names with the same Pinyin spelling and with the same tone, but different characters can be introduced to demonstrate the importance of learning and understanding characters.
  • Pupils can be challenged to identify the radicals in names and what the significance of that might be (many boys’ names have the “man” radical in them whilst girls’ names often have the “grass” radical and are names for flowers or precious stones).
  • Pupils can be challenged to identify the characters used for names in other words e.g. the radical in the girl’s name 玉  Yú (Jade) is also found in the boy’s name   国 Guó (country), which in turn is found in the Chinese for many countries i.e. 中国Zhōngguó  (China), 美国Mĕiguó (America) etc
  • Just as we have the Smith and Joneses the Chinese have the 百家姓 bǎijiāxìng or the 100 most common surnames.  These are listed on  this site.  For more information about this list  have a look at this site – if you hover your mouse over the names on this site you can find out the meaning and the pronunciationof each surname.
  • And finally, this clip from the BBC’s learning zone has a little bit about the meaning of Chinese names.