being a teacher

The Sound of My Name

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For the past thirty years, my own name has sounded foreign to me.  Mangled by tongues who mean well.  Pronounced quickly, with no melody, no cadence.  No history behind it.  No home.

My name, Pernille, a name that is so common in my home nation of Denmark that I had two others who shared my name just in my grade level, doesn’t flow well off of American tongues.  The “r” gets lost, the lightness of its letter blends, and with its changed weight so does the sense of familiarity that comes with being called something that your mother chose for you.

My name carries history.  It was the only name my biological parents agreed on, only because at the point of my birth they knew they would split up.  My mother had already decided on Pernille, a name her mother loved dearly, no discussion needed, four and a half months later she left him.

When I was six, we moved to San Francisco, it was my first introduction to America.  We tried to have people pronounce it correctly, but no matter their attempts, it slowed them down, they had to think about it, it didn’t just roll off their tongues.  So it morphed into how it is pronounced now, Pur-neal, a mask I wear as an immigrated American.  A name that I respond to, but will never really fit.

I think of my name and the emotions that it carries as I reach the milestone of twenty years as an immigrant in this country.  Twenty years of living between two societies.  Twenty years of not feeling completely at home in either.  Of feeling homeless, rootless, despite the life filled with love that I get to have.  I never knew I would grow up to be an American and my name reminds me of that.  When I go home to Denmark, to those who knew me before, it is the sound of my name pronounced correctly that makes me feel like I belong.  It is the ease with which they pronounce it.  How they don’t tell me how they have never heard that name before.  How I am not asked to “Say it first.”  How they can spell it without hesitation.  How I don’t have to say “That’s okay” when somebody bungles it within their well-meaning intentions.

How it rolls off their tongues and embraces me to be who I am, rather than what I am supposed to be.


As we look at our incoming students and the names that they carry, I feel the importance of the correct pronunciation.  How their names carry their history.  How their names carry the hopes that their parents grew as they blessed their new baby with a way to be known to the world.  How because I gave up on correcting people, I will forever be known as something that my mother didn’t intend.  How even when my husband tells me he loves me my name is not completely correct.  How my own children don’t know how to say it the right way because their American tongues get in the way.   And I chose to live with that.  Too late to make a difference now.

But for our students, they shouldn’t have to make that decision.  They should not be forced to give up, to be fine with their name not being pronounced correctly.  That they should see the care with which we hold their names, much like those who dreamt of the name intended.

I wish I could go back to tell six-year-old Pernille to speak up.  To continue to insist on the right pronunciation, on the right sounds, no matter how many failed attempts came before.  To fight for her right to be welcomed in the way she was intended to be.

Perhaps this Pernille, the one who has lived in America for more than twenty years, would not be reminded then every single time someone says her name just how much she doesn’t belong here.  How no matter what, America will never fully be home.  How even her name had to change to be a true part of this great nation.  Because it was simply easier to give up than fight.  That is what I learned when I was six years old.

PS:  To see how Pernille is meant to be pronounced, go here 



33 thoughts on “The Sound of My Name”

  1. I had one elementary teacher pronounce my maiden name correctly throughout my schooling. It made a huge impact on me as a teacher. Thank you, as always, for sharing your personal story and being vulnerable. You are a light in education.

  2. Thank you for ending with a resource for correct pronunciation…first thing, last. Also, you have proved the point that our names are laden with story and a great way for students to share a bit about who they are. A simple way to do this is to ask kids to introduce themselves—to instruct us in how to open the very first gift given to them by their parents.

  3. I always wondered. In my mind, I always pronounced it Pur-Nelly. I like the Danish pronunciation. I am 25% Danish. My maiden name is Christensen. It sounds like there is a “th” sound at the end of your name. I hear Par-kneeltha, with the l and the rolling together.

  4. I tell my students that what they are called matters. Still, they are often too timid to tell me what they prefer or correct my bad pronunciation of their given names. I will share your post with my students at the start of term in a few weeks. I co-teach two sections of 8th grade English that are heavily populated with ELL students. I tell them I love to hear them say their names. When my tongue is too thick, or my brain can’t make sense of the letter combinations, I want to hear those beautiful names as they should be said. And even when my American tongue works against me, I will keep trying, as I want my students to know they are worth that tiny, little struggle. Thank you for the resource of your words to help me convey WHY I want them to fight for their names.

  5. We’re getting ready to do some writing about our names, and I would love to include this as one of our mentor texts, Would that be ok with you? Thank you for all you do!

  6. Thank you for sharing your story. I started my teaching career with students from Laos. people all around them were actually changing their names to Americanize the child. “They moved here. They need to fit our way”. “Their sounds are so hard to say.” I fought back and became a bother when I corrected the pronunciations when needed. I continue to work in schools with high immigration and refugee populations. I am still a bother to many. Last year a student came to me, I was told her name. It just didn’t match with the spelling. I listened to mom and there I learned the true way to say the name. I had to change all the students use as they had used what the teacher said all through kindergarten. I stepped on toes, I will always use the name as the parents want. Names should never be Americanized. You hit a point of sensitivity I have had to work against for the 36 years of my teaching career. You reach so many people, I hope many will take it to heart and find the true name of each child.

  7. My first year teaching, we had a child from Bangladesh enrolled in our school, and the older teachers were insistent upon pronouncing his name the way that it was written – “pran-to” rather than the way it was pronounced – “pron-tu” with a very soft ‘r.’ However, they didn’t realize that he often didn’t respond to that pronunciation, as he didn’t recognize it. The poor boy would sit there while teachers tried to call his name for various reasons, not even realizing that his name was being called because it was an unfamiliar pronunciation.

  8. On the first day of school I tell my students to correct me if I pronounce their name wrong. I also tell them not to accept anyone pronouncing their names incorrectly.Their name is part of who they are. Americans are always trying to “Americanize” someone’s name.

  9. This one does me in. The kids who come to me in grade 7 and 8, who don’t want me to say their name correctly, because it’s the only one that’s different and they’ll just go by the first letter of their first name. The mangling of astoundingly beautiful names over the announcements. The assumption that I will get it right when I read the names at grad, so that once, as these children are about to leave our building, they will hear their name correctly. As a kid whose last name was never pronounced right, I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have your first name mangled. And just so you know, purneal would never have occurred to me. Names are who we are, where we are from, and they are sacred. Your story breaks my heart.

  10. This made me a bit tearful. We’ve just finished our first 3 days. I’m starting to put names/faces together. Pronunciations are mostly there, but I have 2 names that I’m still struggling with. I even went to our Spanish teacher to practice with her. I hate that my tongue won’t seem to wrap around them. I will persevere. I just hope they know I am trying, that I honor them and their names. 😕

  11. Thank you for this. We must persist in listening first so that we seek to understand. Knowing how to pronounce names, using the correct surnames of our students’ parents, and caring enough to create a caring culture for all are of critical importance in the lives of our students.

  12. A lovely post, and it also explains my confusion when hearing you introduced at NCTE. I spent . semester in college in Denmark, and while I say Pernille with an accent, I know it’s not Per-neal!

    I went by Vendija when I lived in Latvia, and loved it, but that was partly because I was trying very hard to be part of my community there, and partly because my real name wouldn’t work for declining endings. My kids are Lithuanian, and one has a familiar name with an unfamiliar spelling (Aleksandr), while the other has a name most Europeans and Spanish speaking Americans can get right, but English speaking Americans tend to mangle at first (Inesa). I try to get my students’ names right. It definitely matters.

  13. What a lovely piece, Pernille! Now that I know how to pronounce you name, my brain says it that way in my head when I read it. I don’t even know you personally (though I heard you speak at NerdCamp) and yet it feels so different!

    I, like many others mention, will be having students write about their names in the first days of school. Our first unit is personal narrative, and I can’t think of a better way for kids to start thinking about their personal stories!

    Sidenote: My grandmother, gone for many years, immigrated to the States from Silkeborg, Denmark. Your piece made me think about how she (and her siblings and parents) felt about their names being Americanized. Dorthea Westergaard. I wish I could have talked to her about this topic when she was alive. 🙂

  14. as ur experiencing, foreigner name not easy to catch a suitable pronunciation and tone, which laden their locale history and culture. But i agree that read a correct name at class for new elementarys can give them more be loved sense.
    Thankyou fo sharing u story, and give us new viewpoint to different ways. i am ur funs.

  15. Pernille,

    I read all of your blog posts (I subscribe and I get them right in my email inbox), but this one was particularly well-written, impactful, and powerful.

    I think one reason I felt that way is because I can relate. I have a difficult last name and that makes me especially sensitive to making sure I pronounce student names correctly. I make a big deal at the beginning of the school year (which was last week) of telling the students to make sure they correct me, and then I make notes and practice. It’s just one of those little things that build the relationship and can make a positive difference down the road. So thanks for your blog post that talks about the importance of doing stuff like that, especially since you used such a personal example to make the point.

    This is also a good time to say how much I enjoy the blog and to thank you for all your do for teachers. You may not realize it (or you may), but let me assure you that, looking at it from the outside, you are making a HUGE difference in education and there are teachers all over the world who look up to you and to whom you are a role model. Thank you for leading as you do.

    I hope you’re well.

    Thanks for all you do.

    Dan Tricarico

  16. Great story about you & your name! I listened to it several times. Is the r totally silent?
    I am going to work on saying all of our students’ names properly this yr or die trying at least!

  17. Thank you Pernille. Since moving to the US from Australia I have become inured to having my name – Les – pronounced as “Less” when it should pronounced as “Lez”. I have even had people write to me as “Less”. I even thought of changing it but that would be denying my heritage.

  18. I relate to this so much. I am from India and my real name is Anoyuksha, it’s pronounced as ano-yuk-sha. And still, all my life, whomsoever i met except few, can never get it right. And yes, eventually, i gave up too. But it’s true it still stings when somebody pronounces it wrong. And it feels euphoric when someone gets it right the first time! I am so proud of my name, yet i hesitate in telling people my full name when i first meet them.
    So all i am saying is, i know how you feel. Kudos to you. It’s a beautifully captured emotion. Loved reading it.

  19. This is so powerful and definitely something I want to share with my students!

    Would you be willing to post just an audio version of you pronouncing your name? (I am getting some really sketchy video links when watching the YouTube video and would rather not share those with my students as well!)

  20. I can relate to this so much! For over two decades I too had to deal with the mispronunciation, the asking of what it meant/where it was from, the saying it was okay when people accidentally mispronounced it, and awkwardly laughing when people purposely mispronounced it. Finally I had enough, and decided that when I got married and changed my last name, I would also change my first name. The small comfort of being called properly in doctor’s office or by friends is enough to make me not regret my decision. Now only on occasion am I asked “is Demi short for something?” & I have that internal struggle of going through the whole name changing discussion or simply saying no its just that. (I legally shortened it, so it’s both)

    Thank you for sharing this. Hopefully you won’t mind if I share this on my blog?

  21. First, I love your name. My last name has been messed up repeatedly since I was little. I have lost track of how many times it has been haphazardly altered. Only one of my teachers has ever gotten it right it without asking me to say it first. Turns out his wife is from Germany. He told me that if had mispronounced it he would have been sleeping on the couch for a month.

  22. HI Pernille
    Im a teacher and librarian in Denmark. I just discovered your blog and I find your thoughts very inspiring

      1. Troede jeg havde svaret dig tilbage. Men åbenbart ikke. Jeg synes at selvom du bor i USA og jeg i Jelling, så minder vores liv meget om hinanden. Jeg blev dansklærer og bibliotekar for 2 år siden, og jeg bruger i øjeblikket meget af min fritid på at finde ud af, hvordan man kan give eleverne læselyst. Jeg synes derfor du er spændene, fordi du tænker en masse gode tanker

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