Why do Korean students want to have an English name in class?


Spring is in the air and new English classes are starting in schools and companies everywhere. The first thing I do when I get a new class of students is to go down the register and ask each student how they would like to be addressed – by me and the other students in the class. Then I write their preference next to their Korean name. The youngest members of the class are often OK with using their first names. Older students may prefer a more formal Mr. Kim or Mrs. Park.

post war school desk

A very cute school desk

But many students will use an English name. They may already have one or if not, they ask me to give them an English name. When I ask them why they want one the answer is usually that they think their Korean name is ‘too difficult’ for me to pronounce. Perhaps this is true. Perhaps they are simply thinking of me. But if I insist that I CAN learn their Korean name if they want to use it, these students STILL want to use an English name…

So is this the only reason to use an English name? Some students choose jokey names – like James Bond –  OK that’s easy to remember. But others choose names that are not English and are not names! I had a student who wanted to be called Mon Ami. And a Korean coordinator I worked with at a language school wanted to be creative and concocted his own name combining a Latin word with other sounds that he ‘just liked’ to come up with something that, quite frankly, was harder to remember than a lot of the Korean vocabulary I study. I kept forgetting his name and I was not the only teacher to struggle with it! Ironically, his Korean name was very easy to remember but he didn’t want to use it! So this further suggests that there is more to it than simply pronunciation issues. So what is going on?


oh sang sik

Oh Sang Sik in the drama Misaeng, an Incomplete Life, is addressed as Oh Cha Jang, Deputy Department Head Oh. 

OK I accept that making pronunciation easier (for the teacher) may be one reason for using an English name, but I think the main reason is more to do with Korean society and the strict rules about how to address others. Age, relationship, and status all have to be taken into consideration. For me, one of the most difficult things about living in Korean society is working out how to address other people! That’s because often it’s not appropriate to simply use that person’s name.

I could fill a book on how to address others in Korean but just to give a quick example, let’s take my sister-in-law. I should address her as 아가씨 ‘agashi’. (not by her actual name). Her mother-in-law doesn’t use her name either but calls her 애미(야) ‘emi(ya)’ If she didn’t have any children her mother-in-law would call her 며늘아 ‘myonura’. Confused yet? There’s more…

Let’s say her son’s name is Tom. When she meets her son’s teacher or parents of other children they may call her politely Tom-어머니 ‘Tom-omoni’ or more casually Tom-엄마 ‘Tom-omma’ (Tom’s mum) depending on how close they are. Now let’s say she also works in an office. Then at work she will be addressed by her title for example Kim Tim Jang (Team Leader Kim). I’m not finished yet …

People who are acquainted with her husband will also have to address her by a title depending on whether they are older or younger than her husband. Her husband’s friends or seniors may call her 제수씨 ‘chesu shi’. His juniors may call her 형수님 ‘hyeong su nim’ His acquaintances may call her politely as 사모님 ‘samonim’.   And …

Younger female friends will call her 언니 onni and younger male friends will call her 누나 nu-na. I think the only people who actually use her first name are her friends (they must be the SAME age as her), her seniors from school, her parents, and her brother. I mean, why does it have to be so complicated? (I’m exhausted just thinking about it all. So far in my life, 99% of the time I have just used my first name. 😕 )

I’ve only ever used another name once. And that was at primary school when I had French lessons. I was given the French name Marie. This was not my choice – it was the name I was given. Our French names were written on cards and placed on our desk. I thought it was weird being called a different name. Mind you, it was even weirder having to try to speak in French. 😉


King Sukjong and DY

In Sageuk drama we can see the King (here King Sukjong played by Ji Jin Hee in MBC drama Dong Yi) can be addressed in different ways including – 전하 Jon-ha (by his subjects) and 주상 chu-sang (by his mother). 

As well as using different titles in different situations, some of my Christian students also have a name from the Bible that they chose to be christened with.

One student I had was called Angela. Her name stood out on the register because it was just one name, written in English – no surname. Like a rock star. Like Bono. All the other names in the register were written in Korean – with three characters of hangul – the first is the surname and then two characters for the first name. I assumed that Angela was her Christian name and that her family name had simply been missed off the register. But no.

When I got to Angela’s name on the register I asked her how she would like to be addressed. She said – surprise surprise – that ‘Angela’ would be fine. And then she explained her name – and it’s pretty clever. Her family name is An. (that’s read first) And her given names are Ge La. So by doing this her family have killed three birds with one stone. She has a full Korean name: An ge la. And she has a catholic name – Angela, and she has an easy to remember English sounding name – Angela. Very versatile.

Of course you would have to have the surname An to be able to achieve this. If your surname was Kim for example I suppose you could come up with Kim Ber Ley. But I don’t think there are any Kimberleys in the Bible – although I must confess to not having read the Bible recently. Other surnames like Park or Jang become more tricky.


When it comes to the students addressing the teacher there are problems too. Even adult students feel uncomfortable just using the teacher’s first name and say ‘Teacher’  instead. Yes, the foreign language classroom is an odd, artificial place where people who might never talk to each other out in the real world come together to speak another language. This can create all sorts of difficulties. It can be stressful and awkward. So students who feel uncomfortable addressing each other in a way that they would never do in Korean can avoid this by choosing an English name. Using an English name may also be like having an alter ego – you can become a different person with a foreign name.

On the other hand, I’ve also had students sit next to each other for weeks and not know each other’s names – and be perfectly at ease with that! Maybe sometimes it’s just easier to avoid the whole name situation altogether!

2 thoughts on “Why do Korean students want to have an English name in class?

  • July 13, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    i am a 13 year old korean who is currently studying in an international school in havana. listen to my name: yooseung. I have tried, teaching people to pronounce it, but it is IMPOSSIBLE. I get really frustrated at times. There seems to be a really stupid prejudice that the korean language basically sounds like chinese, and my classmates will always say it in a “chinese” accent just to annoy me or just because they genuinely think that way..Just because my name has a “ung” sound, they poke fun and make fun of it. I’ve gotten used to it, and it is super annoying when people pronounce it wrong. For example, my mom’s name is nayoung which is pretty easy to pronounce. But mine’s just really hard. We do love our names, and get really annoyed by people who ask WHY WE NEED AN ENGLISH NAME?! I might just start screaming. I hope this helped you. The name situation is something quite sensitive since many people assume we are “embarrassed ” by our korean identity but it really isn’t about that. Hope this helped, and please do not ask this question to anyone else. BTW when people are trying to pronounce our name, it seems like they are deliberately trying to annoy us, so pls be careful.

    • July 20, 2016 at 5:46 pm

      Hi Yooseung,

      Thanks for sharing your story. It must be very frustrating to have to go through a lot of hassle every time you try to tell someone your name. And it’s totally understandable for people who are living abroad to simplify or change their names to something that sounds more familiar to people in that country. Regrettable but practical.

      I should have made it clearer in this post, but I am not talking about Koreans who are living abroad. I’m talking about Korean adults studying English in Korea. In this situation the students in the classroom are all Korean, often business people.

      Obviously, in this case there are no problems with remembering names or struggling with pronunciation. I, as the teacher, explain that I have lived in Korea long enough to be familiar with Korean names. I don’t want anyone to feel that they must change their name just for my benefit. And yet, many students still want to use an English name. This is why I decided to consider this further and look at various reasons for this in the post.

      I hope this clears up any misunderstanding. Good luck with your studies.

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