Friday, 12 February 2016

"A" is for "Mohamed"

I haven't been an ESL teacher very long, granted, but I've been one for long enough that I was beginning to fancy myself pretty good with learning names. Random people I can barely remember, but I typically can name all my students by the end of the second class, if not the first, just so long as they're not African.

Oh, one or two African names and faces in a host of other nationalities I can handle. African name? Check. African face? Check. I'll mutilate the pronunciation of their names, of course, but I'll at least get down the anglicized equivalent without much trouble. My new class, however, is almost entirely from the Horn of Africa (with a few randoms thrown in here and there).

The first roll call was basically a write-off.

"What's your name?" I asked one African gentleman.

His lips moved and sound came out.

"Sorry, once more?" I requested.

He smiled graciously; his lips moved and sound came out again, a little more slowly and punctuated than the first time. I peered down at the class list, hoping futilely for the appropriate name to jump out and grab me, but nothing looked liked mashed computer keys.

"Ummm.... Ahmed Ibrahim Mohamed?" I suggested.

"No," the man replied pleasantly, and thoughtfully pronounced his name a third time.

"...Sayid Mohamed Hussein?"


You can't ask a fourth time. You just can't. "Maybe you should show me," I said, handing him the register. He pointed to Mohamed Osman Adan*.

Let me tell you, if you can't even distinguish someone's name after listening to it three times WHILE YOU ARE STARING AT A LIST OF POSSIBLE OPTIONS then you know you have listening problems. You think you know how "Mohamed Osman Adan" is supposed to sound? Yeah, you are mistaken. They would have had about as much success communicating with my English ears had they stuck their fingers between their lips and blown motorboat noises.

Additionally, it would appear that no less than two thirds of the African Muslim population is named "Mohamed". Even the ladies are Mohamed, though it's their family name (or the African equivalent of a family name), rather than their given name. So, pronunciation is only half the issue. Even after you've made them all write name cards in big, bold letters, you've still got a confounding situation where you say a name and yet are barely sure yourself which person you're actually addressing.

To start the second class, I had the students stand up, one at a time, and introduce themselves with the following formula: "Hi, I'm _____________________ and I like ____________________." They had to alliterate the thing they like with the first letter of their name, then point to each person in the room who had previously introduced themselves and repeat their names and likes.

When we got to the second Mohamed, I intervened and told him that he could no longer be Mohamed. Taken slightly aback, Mohamed gently responded that yes, his name was actually Mohamed. Luckily, the other Mohameds at his table backed me up and explained to him that I could not possibly be expected to differentiate between more than one of them. They briefly negotiated amongst themselves, then the second Mohamed turned around and said I could call him Ali, his family name.

At least, I think it's his family name. As far as I, or my coworkers, can tell, a lot of Africans don't really consider their names to have a standard order and will give them in whatever order they feel like at any particular point in time. It makes it quite a task to alphabetize lists when students themselves don't know which name comes first. In any case, I certainly helped add to the anarchy, what with making several Mohameds go by their last or middle names.

After Ali, the next students introduced themselves as Ahmed, Adin, Amal, Abdikhadar, and Abdulkadir. They liked many things beginning with A. It got so ridiculous that even their fellow Somalis at the next table didn't know who was who or which one of them liked "appointments".

Then, after mass confusion, we got to my sole Ukrainian student. "I'm Tatiana," she said, "I like tea." Sweet relief! And she proceeded to correctly name every person thus far introduced as well as the things they liked, without once breaking rhythm. And also to conversationally address them by their chosen names AFTER they had gotten up, shuffled, and switched seats. Hats off to Ukraine. I stand in awe.

"The author of the Iliad is either Homer or, if not Homer, somebody else of the same name." Aldous Huxley

*Naturally, for privacy's sake, I can't post the exact names of my students, but this is a pretty close approximation.