If there was any question about one of the most dominant issues in international education, consider this: Several hundred people packed a ballroom here to mangle Chinese vowels.
One in every three international students on American campuses today is from China, and their numbers continue to surge.
What’s not necessarily growing is American educators’ ability to pronounce Chinese names. In fact, when Jennifer Vos, the panel’s organizer, surveyed Chinese students at Fordham University, where she is an international-student adviser, she found that 75 percent of them had adopted English names. But almost all said they would have preferred to use their given names, if only non-Chinese speakers were able to pronounce them.
In addition, of the 200 students surveyed by Ms. Vos, nearly half said that in situations in which they had to use their Chinese names — for example, when dealing with student-visa issues — they didn’t even attempt to say their names. They just spelled them for Americans.
Ms. Vos, who speaks Mandarin and has a background in linguistics, decided about two and a half years ago to put together a primer to help her fellow advisers get their tongues around twisty Chinese pronunciation. She’s since given the tutorial to professors, staff members, and administrators, on her own campus and elsewhere.
On Tuesday afternoon, she and her fellow presenter, Kate Zheng, a program coordinator in the University of Michigan’s international center, led a full house of international educators through unfamiliar phrasing: "xi" (said like "shee"), "zh" (sort of like an English "j"), and "Huang" (rhymes with "pong," never "pang").
Pronounce "Yu," common as both a first name and a surname, like the English pronoun, and you’ll confuse a Mandarin speaker, Ms. Zheng said. It’s drawn out, more like "y eu-ee."
"What’s the opposite of mastery?" muttered one participant when asked if he was getting the hang of it.
But Ms. Vos said it wasn’t about nailing perfect pronunciation. Rather, with so many Chinese students pursuing American degrees, just trying can go a long way. It shows respect for students’ background and heritage, and it can help them feel more welcome.
"Students," Ms. Vos said, "really do notice your effort."