University of Melbourne Magazine

Podcast transcript – The Name Doctor

[List of names from different cultural backgrounds being read out by Dr Fiona Price]

Verica Jokic: At every graduation ceremony at the University of Melbourne, Fiona Price reads out the names of new graduates.

[List of names from different cultural backgrounds being read out by Dr Fiona Price]

Verica Jokic: She uses emphases and accents, switching from a Mandarin to a six-part Arabic name on to Spanish, French and long Sri Lankan names…. effortlessly.

Fiona is a University of Melbourne alumna with a PhD from the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences. She graduated in 2001 and has become known as the Name Doctor.

Dr Fiona Price: The names are my job, so I read them out enthusiastically and clearly and I’m confident and that comes across.

Verica Jokic: Fiona was specialising in cross-cultural psychology when, in early 2001, she accidentally launched her name-reading career. It all started when her scholarship was about to run out but her thesis was yet to be completed. She needed to find a job to pay the bills and began by training international students at the university how to adapt to Australian society. The courses were successful. News of their effectiveness spread and soon she was asked to develop cultural-training workshops for University staff.

Dr Fiona Price: So I thought ‘alright, what practical skills do people need?’ So I went out and interviewed probably 50 or 60 members of staff at the University of Melbourne, I spoke to people and I spoke to everyone – maintenance staff to catering staff and senior academics, sundry desks all over the university, IT help desks, alumni office, that sort of thing… asked them all Anything that you think would be valuable to have training on.’

And something just kept coming up which at first I dismissed because I thought how important can it be, it sounds quite trivial, which is ‘You know what we really have trouble with with international students, especially those from Asian countries, is their names? We can’t pronounce them. We don’t know which part of the name to address them by, they give us these western names to use and we’re never sure if we should use them, perhaps it’s a bit neo-colonial, oh dear, but they ask me to use them so should use them or not… we have this data base which is set up for John Michael Smith and we’re getting this six-part name from Saudi Arabia and we don’t know how to enter it, and from that comes our mail-merge programs, , our name tags, our email addresses our academic transcripts and of course reading names at graduation. And we find it terribly stressful.

And after I’d interviewed maybe 60 members of staff, and 55 out of 60 mentioned names as their biggest daily stresses, I thought this is not a trivial issue at all.

Verica Jokic: Fiona began researching the top ten Asian languages spoken at the university, and contacted native speakers of each of those languages who showed her how to read and pronounce Asian names.

She then developed a training program for staff… teaching them pronunciations… how to identify last names, and how to enter Asian students’ names in databases. Her workshops became so popular… she realised she could turn it into a career… and left the university to launch her business.

Dr Fiona Price: I’ve now run my Asian names course in 23 Australian universities. That’s how big an issue getting multicultural names right is.

Verica Jokic: Soon calls came through asking for help with Arabic names.

Dr Fiona Price: I have got an Asian mother, and I’ve studied Mandarin and Japanese, so Asian names wasn’t a big stretch for me, and I’m familiar with lots of Asian languages even those I don’t speak. But I’d never learned Arabic or Turkish or Persian or anything but I thought, Oh well, looks like it’s time to start my interview process again. So I interviewed people who are native speakers of Middle Eastern languages and developed a second course called Working With Middle Eastern names.

Verica Jokic: The calls kept coming from faculty Deans and their PAs. The Deans were very nervous and intimidated by the great numbers of multicultural names they were going to have to read at graduation ceremonies.

Could Fiona help with name pronunciations at graduations? And, could she provide phonetic spellings for the names too? And then inevitably, could Fiona actually read the names out herself at the University of Melbourne graduations?

Dr Fiona Price: And they were thrilled by the outcome. They said the students are much happier because they know for sure it’s them before they walk across to receive their certificate. The names are read much more quickly and fluently. Often you have someone that’s a faculty dean or whatever making three or four false starts and then coming out with something the student doesn’t recognise so the student has to check with the person, the staff member on the stage to make sure that’s really them before they walk across.

Verica Jokic: Did it surprise you that they were too frightened to pronounce some of these names?

Dr Fiona Price: Not really. I’ve been to graduation ceremonies and I’ve heard how it sounds …often they mumble it into the microphone, they think well I don’t know how to say it so if I mumble it people might not notice that I don’t know how to say it…Not really. It didn’t surprise me. I knew what a big issue it was. And it doesn’t matter how clever you are you can be an emeritus professor of engineering but your field is not pronouncing multicultural names. Most of them are quite grateful.

Verica Jokic: Other universities contacted her… to do their graduation ceremonies too.

Dr Fiona Price: According to your more Anglo-Saxon protestant societies, getting someone’s name right is fundamental to showing them respect because it’s an individualist society, the name represents the individual, getting the name right means showing respect to the individual, if you get it wrong it’s a big insult.

Verica Jokic: Three or four times a year, up to eight universities now send their Excel files to Fiona listing the names of all their graduating students. At the University of Melbourne, that could be anything up to 10,000 names per ceremony.

Dr Fiona Price: If there’s lots of Chinese names I can be very quick because Chinese I just know.

Verica Jokic: How many could you do?  How many Chinese names in an hour could you do?

Dr Fiona Price: Oh, Chinese names take me 4-5 seconds each. It’s very easy, once you know the system they use for writing down Chinese in the Roman alphabet… you can do it without having to think about it or look it up. It’s the ones that I look up that take the time. But on average, I can do between 250-350 names per hour.

[List of names from different cultural backgrounds being read out by Dr Fiona Price]

Dr Fiona Price: I find with accents it’s all about putting it in the right part of your mouth. Arabic is spoken in the back of the throat, so it’s Mohamad, you have to actually open your mouth a little bit wider which makes the sound go to the back of your throat. Cantonese has got a lot more jaw and cheek in it than Mandarin. Mandarin is higher up. The difference between Lee Kai Yew Ho Chu Kit. Ho Chu Kit is Cantonese and s0oyou let the jaw drop lower, and Mandarin you go up into the top of the palette. Whereas French is also in the back of the throat and you have to use that there, Japanese is a sort of more gentle mouth, the mouth and cheeks are a little bit less tense. Because it’s softer and gentler than some of the other accents I need to put on, it takes a little resetting from something which is a bit more gutsy, French or German. To go from Hands Reinheme to Momoko Ishigara.

[List of names from different cultural backgrounds being read out by Dr Fiona Price]

Verica Jokic: How do you know that the audience appreciate the efforts you’ve gone to to get the names right?

Dr Fiona Price: The graduation staff, the first couple of times I’d read for them, they were really thrilled. They’d say it’s not just the pronunciation although that is quite astonishing, the audience is much more engaged. Usually, by about a third of the way into the graduation ceremony the whole audience is going to sleep, checking their phones, discreetly reading a book or something, whereas now it’s like a performance. They are kind of reading the names list in disbelief trying to find a name that’s going to catch you out, saying look how long this one is, that’ll fix her, and then I’ll read it very fluently. I remember

I remember reading a French name, in a very French accent, I really went over the top with the French, and I remember this little ripple going through the audience saying ‘ooh, she can do French too’, and they said it’s like a performance now. It’s actually like going to a recital of different accents instead of this tedious ceremony where we’re there for the six seconds that our child takes to cross the stage and the rest, we’re just sitting there bored to death.

Verica Jokic: What feedback do you get from the students? Obviously the staff are very happy, what feedback do you get from the students?

Dr Fiona Price: Well I’ve had a few people email me randomly after the ceremony saying ‘thank you, I couldn’t believe that you were able to pronounce so many names in so many different languages with the correct pronunciation and accent.

The one problem is of course if you’re pronouncing most of the names correctly, the one or two you do pronounce wrong stick out a lot more. I’ve had a couple of people saying ‘well you didn’t get my name right’. on balance though my hit rate is vastly higher than the people who would otherwise be reading them.

Verica Jokic: Some of the names she has problems with include Scandinavian, Dutch, Vietnamese and Irish.

Dr Fiona Price: Vietnamese is tricky. Vietnamese has a lot of diacritics, accents and tone markings which are all removed before I get the names, and they’ve also got strong differences between north and south Vietnamese. And the north and south pronunciations are very different.

Verica Jokic: But often the most difficult are the names from the British Isles. Why is that?

Dr Fiona Price: Individualists from the UK are very particular about how their names are pronounced and they see it as a mark of respect, but often you can’t tell from just the spelling how they would prefer. Are you a Thereeza or a Therayza? Well, I don’t know, I can’t tell by looking at your name. I don’t know if you are a Natasha or a Natarsha. I don’t know if you are a Howton, Horton, Huffton looking at HOUGHTON or it could be anything. And then there are Irish names… I don’t know what happened in Gaelic but sometimes there are four or five silent letters in an Irish name.

Verica Jokic: When she can’t find a native speaker of a language or her network of contacts are unable to help, Fiona turns to the internet.

What name are you typing in? S I O B H A N

[Siobhan being pronounced by Forvo on the computer]

Dr Fiona Price: So somebody gave two versions of it, two different dialects possibly, But you can see here we’ve got four different native speakers of Gaelic, presumably, who’ve made an MP3.

Verica Jokic: And if you weren’t familiar with Irish names, you might pronounce that as what?

Dr Fiona Price: See-oh-bahn, or something like that.

Verica Jokic: Fiona says most international students don’t fret over how their name will be pronounced.

Dr Fiona Price: They place more importance on showing respect to people in a higher status than they do about my name being pronounced correctly even by my teacher, they think ‘no, this is my teacher, I must give them a name they feel comfortable saying so they don’t lose face’.

However with graduation it’s a little bit different. this is a very formal high-status ceremony and their parents are coming from overseas. Now the student has been in Australia for 3-4 years and got used to being called Jimmy. But when the parents come the parents don’t know them as Jimmy and if they hear them being called Jimmy they’re going to go “oh oh Jimmy…” it’s a mark of respect for the parents who are after all probably paying the international student fees, pronouncing the name in a way that they recognise, so they know this is the name of my son or daughter. And it’s showing them that we’re taking the effort to pronounce your son or daughter’s name in your language as closely as we can, and I think that’s a nice gesture.

[List of names from different cultural backgrounds being read out by Dr Fiona Price]

Verica Jokic: You’ve been listening to the 3010 podcast, written, produced and edited by me, Verica Jokic. Music by Rory Clark. Chris Hatzis was our audio engineer.

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