Multilingual names

Being Multilingual: Finding your multilingual name

Comments1 comment

What's in a name? If your name doesn't translate well abroad, you can always enter the world of multilingual identities.

In contrast to questions like 'Where are you from?', a question like 'What’s your name?' is not particularly baffling to multilinguals when they move abroad.

We may, of course, answer it differently depending on who’s asking and in which language they’re using. If that language is an official 'home' of our official name(s), the answer is straightforward. But for non-speakers of the languages of our official names, foreigners have a few options for creating their multilingual name.

Multilingual names

We may choose to answer with a cognate name in the language of the asker, whereby I would change Madalena into Madeleine in French, for example, or John would be Juan in Spanish and so on. This would count as a translation. But if you’re curious about the (il)legitimacy of rendering proper names in different languages, have a look at this Ask-a-Linguist query, ‘Not translating names’. An interesting point this query highlights is that translations aren't always a true representation, as some letters or sounds might not exist in other languages. Globalisation and international mobility has also exposed us to foreign names from around the world, whereby the name Juan would likely be understood in both English and Spanish without any translation.

We can also answer with an approximation of our name to be more similar with names in another language: some of my Mandarin-speaking friends call me Mei Ling, for example.

You can also pronounce your name in 'Foreign-Speak', sounding it out as if the name were a word of another language. This works well for those of us named Pär and Štěpánka, or surnamed Gråbøl and Garção, and for those of us with ASCII names like mine (ie. names that fit with the mono-lingual ASCII computer code, based on American English). I follow suit on my English-speaking friends pronunciation of my name, calling myself something which sounds like Mad Lina, for their benefit.

What's in a name?

'Benefit' is the key word, here. In most cases, we accommodate accents to ease the asker's understanding. Towards ourselves, too, actually: in practical terms, it doesn’t favour the flow of speech to use the pronunciation of a word in a language when we’re speaking another. We want to speak in tune, just like we do with words that are borrowed from other languages and incorporated into our own (like the many French words that have entered the English language). In this sense, expressing our names differently would be more beneficial to listeners. Children seem to be well aware of this, by the way: my children, for example, made the different versions of their names as soon as they started using them when addressing speakers of their different languages.

Besides featuring appropriate accents across languages, our names thus remain 'proper' by matching the social environments we happen to find ourselves in. This could be true whether we’re monolingual or multilingual, or living abroad or not, considering that we already call ourselves, and are called, by many different labels depending on our environment. Besides nicknames, in some communities, we might be on first name terms with parents, teachers, bosses and employees. In other communities, appropriate forms of address and response may fill pages of academic and etiquette literature.

It’s our job to adapt, so that we integrate into the communities where each different label makes sense. The ability to fit in is not a sign of 'rootlessness', but rather, it shows that roots are flexible things.


Reprinted and edited with permission of Being Multilingual.

Madalena Cruz-FerreiraBeing Multilingual - Madalena Cruz Ferreira is a freelance linguist who works on debunking myths and misconceptions about multilingualism at home, in school, and in clinic. One of her books, Multilinguals are ...?, is "a breath of fresh air in a field which desperately needs ventilation" (David Crystal), and "should be required reading for those who work closely with groups and individuals who use multiple languages" (Jeff MacSwan). She is Portuguese, married to a Swede, based in Singapore, and the mother of three trilingual children. She runs two blogs, Being Multilingual, on multilingualism, and Lang101 Blog, on linguistics for starters. You can find her on Twitter.

Thumbnail credit:


Expat Fair for Internationals Whether you’ve lived here for days, months or years, you won’t regret attending the Expat Fair for Internationals. Sunday 7 October 2018, Amsterdam.

Get your FREE tickets and discover more about expat life in the Netherlands. 

Comment here on the article, or if you have a suggestion to improve this article, please click here.

If you believe any of the information on this page is incorrect or out-of-date, please let us know. Expatica makes every effort to ensure its articles are as comprehensive, accurate and up-to-date as possible, but we're also grateful for any help! (If you want to contact Expatica for any other reason, please follow the instructions on this website's contact page.)

Captcha Note: Characters are case sensitive
The details you provide on this page will not be used to send any unsolicited e-mail, and will not be sold to a third party. Privacy policy .

1 Comment To This Article

  • Dawn posted:

    on 1st May 2015, 21:34:30 - Reply

    My name, Dawn, is difficult for Spaniards, so I go by my Spanish equivalent "Alba." I also have a friend whose first name in Norwegian sounds like "Gay," and he said even though he is gay, he prefers a more approachable name, so he uses his middle name of Daniel.