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June 2022 - Year 24 - Issue 3

ISSN 1755-9715

“Hi, Memory!” : Negotiating Forms of Address with Chinese EFL Students on a Pre-sessional Course at a UK University

David Clayton is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Doshisha Women's College of Liberal Art, Kyoto, Japan. His research interests include Task-Based Learning, Corpus Linguistics and English for Academic Purposes.



This article argues that there are more possible drawbacks to using Chinese students’ English names than possible benefits. It will outline how and why English names are chosen, the advantages and disadvantages to this practice and show that using students’ Chinese names has many practical advantages.



In the academic year 2018/19, there were 120,385 Chinese students enrolled in Higher Education courses in the UK, representing a larger student cohort than that drawn from all the EU countries combined (Higher Education Student Statistics, 2020). Many of these students enrol in language courses in the UK prior to starting their graduate or post-graduate courses, but few of their language teachers have experience teaching in China (Edwards, 2006), so this presents both challenges and opportunities to both parties. One aspect of teaching Chinese EFL students that language teachers can find surprising is that the vast majority assume a different, ‘English’ name when taking English language classes (Tian and Zheng, 2004) and continue to do so on their graduate or post-graduate courses in the UK.

This article follows the convention used by Edwards (2006) when referring to these names as ‘English names’, although they may not be recognised as typical. ‘Chinese name’ refers to the students’ given Chinese names which is shown on their passports and is usually the name they register for their courses under.


Reasons why Chinese students use English names

There are widely-held assumptions by English teachers and students in China that it is necessary  or desirable for students to have an English name for when students use English (McPherron, 2009). Silver and Shiomi (2010) and Yihong, Limei and Wei (2010) stress the importance of an English name in helping construct an imagined identity as a proficient L2 speaker, and the beneficial effects this has on language learning.  An English name might be chosen or created by a student independently, or it might be assigned by a teacher, or chosen from a list, or be the product of a ludic back-translation from Chinese (Yihong, Limei and Wei, 2010). It may be influenced by the chooser’s degree of investment in the language learning process, by resistance to the forces of linguistic imperialism, or to show compliance or submission. The process can also “other” the Chinese student (e.g. “your name does not fit this culture, use this one instead”, or indeed the British teacher (e.g. “you cannot remember/pronounce my real name, use this one instead”) (Edwards, 2006., and McPerron, 2009). The choice of English name can also lead to acceptance or rejection, admiration or ridicule, thus it is clear that practice has a number of possible benefits and risks. 

When I first encountered this phenomenon as an EAP lecturer on a pre-sessional course at a British university, my students were predominantly Chinese. My instant reaction was to follow the students’ stated wishes and call them by their English names. I noticed some relatively minor issues arising from this throughout the course (e.g. students occasionally forgot their English names, or wanted to change them mid-course), but apart from a vague feeling of unease had no problem going along with what the students wanted. However, at the end of the course I was involved in a high-stakes pastoral negotiation with a student (about whether the student would be able to continue their studies in the UK or not). I did not know their real name, despite having taught them daily for nearly two months, and this struck me as being a very peculiar situation indeed. Did the student take me seriously if I didn't use their name?

Having consulted with other teachers and students about naming practises among Chinese students I resolved to give Chinese students I taught on future courses the option of me using their Chinese names, rather than an English one. This article details the classroom research I conducted into students' reactions to my new policy during the next pre-sessional course I taught at the university.



The study took place during a 6-week pre-sessional course at a British university prior to the academic year 2016-17. Data was collected from 48 Chinese post-graduate students using open questionnaires and informal discussions with students and teachers at the end of the course.

Two groups of students (comprising several small classes of Chinese students in each) were surveyed with an open questionnaire at the end of their courses. In the first group (A), the teachers had called the students by their chosen English names. In the second group (B), the teachers had called the students by their real names. When these teachers first met the students, they explained that they would prefer to use their Chinese names, and the students agreed to this. The main results are summarised below:

Both groups were asked about the background to their English name use. All students had experienced using an English name, and they were generally either self-selected or chosen by a teacher. If they chose the name themselves, they chose it because it was either easy to remember, similar to their own names, or they liked the name itself.

Group A was asked why they wanted to use an English name. Over 75% said that it would be easier for  teachers and classmates to say and remember. The rest said it either "felt English", was "convenient", or "it was compulsory in China". When asked about the possible disadvantages of using an English name, over 65% said that the practice might cause "confusion", either because students would not know each other's names, might forget their own names, or because several students might choose similar names.

Group B was asked how they felt when teachers explained that they would use their real names. 32 out of 37 comments mentioned that it was "good", or "fantastic", or they were "happy the teacher could remember my name". Three students said they "didn't care", and only one student "didn't like it". The other student said that the teacher's pronunciation was "funny". Whether this meant "comical" or "strange" was unclear.

Group B were then asked an open question about the perceived advantages of teachers using their real names.  20 comments stated that the practice "avoided confusion", and 15 that it was "more natural". 11 students said that it "shows respect" and six said that it "helps the teacher to learn Chinese". More than three quarters of the students wanted to continue using their real name when studying abroad, citing reasons such as "I'm Chinese!", "My parents gave me this name", "I don't want to change my name", and it "Feels warm". Of the students who did not want to continue using their real names, most of them said that English names facilitate communication with local people or make them feel like Native Speakers. One student commented that "Chinese names are hard for other students".

When Group B were asked about the possible disadvantages of using their real names, almost all of them said their names might be "difficult to remember" or "difficult to pronounce". 



To conclude, many Chinese students believe that using English names makes life easier for teachers, yet they have strong emotional and cultural attachments to their real names, so they react overwhelmingly positively to teachers using their real names. As a result, I recommend that when teaching Chinese students, teachers should try to use their real names, and explain the reasons why, possibly citing the Group B results above. Teachers should also assure students that their names are not unpronounceable and that we will do our best to learn them and say them correctly.

There is a caveat, however; English names can be more memorable. The year after I conducted this research, I returned to the same university to teach the course again. In a Chinese supermarket, I bumped into one of the students from Group A. I had only ever used her English name. I hadn't seen her for a year, yet her name jumped straight into my head: "Hi Memory!", I said.



Edwards, R. (2006). What's in a name? Chinese learners and the practice of adopting ‘English’names. Language, Culture and Curriculum19(1), 90-103.

Higher Education Student Statistics: UK, 2018/19 - Where students come from and go to study. (2020, January 16). Retrieved September 23, 2021, from

Lee, J. (2001, February 12). China Youth Take Names From West: Hi Medusa! The New York Times. Retrieved September 23, 2021, from

McPherron, P. (2009). “My name is Money”: name choices and global identifications at a South-Chinese university. Asia Pacific Journal of Education29(4), 521-536.

Silver, R., & Shiomi, K. (2010). Crossing linguistic boundaries: When students use English names in English classes. 立命館言語文化研究22(2), 181-199.

Tian, G. S. & Zheng, Y. L. 2004. The use of English names by college students in China. In Y. H. Gao et al. 168-189.

Yihong, G., Limei, X., & Wei, K. (2010). " I Want to Be a Captain of My Own Heart"--English Names and Identity Construction by English Majors in a Comprehensive University. Chinese Journal of Applied Linguistics (Foreign Language Teaching & Research Press)33(2).


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Tagged  Various Articles 
  • “Hi, Memory!” : Negotiating Forms of Address with Chinese EFL Students on a Pre-sessional Course at a UK University
    David Clayton, UK