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Graduation Readers At MIT Go The Extra Mile To Pronounce Names Correctly


On thousands of stages across the country, procession of graduates will hear their names mispronounced. As America has become more multicultural, the pronunciation of names has become more challenging for those beleaguered administrators who have to read them. Judith Kogan has this story.

JUDITH KOGAN, BYLINE: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology draws students from 125 different countries. On commencement day, undergraduates and graduates are awarded diplomas in one massive ceremony, more than 2,000 names read aloud, one every two seconds.



UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Gloria Hyun (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Julie K. Karceski (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Noor K. Kouri (ph).


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Billy Dengangoma (ph).

ERIC GRIMSON: When you see parents here, sometimes having come to the United States for the first time, the last thing we want to do is butcher a name.

KOGAN: Eric Grimson, who's been chair of the commencement committee for 20 years says deans used to read the names.

GRIMSON: So students from the school of science would have their name read by the dean of the school of science. Students from the school of engineering - it's a nice touch.

KOGAN: But it often didn't go so well.

GRIMSON: One of our deans of engineering came to us after a commencement and said, look, I'm butchering names. I don't have an ear for it. I feel so terrible about it. We need to change it.

KOGAN: So in 2002, they did.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Master of science in civil and environmental engineering, Hamani Gupta.

GRIMSON: The readers are all staff members that we select for several characteristics. They ought to have a great voice. They need to be able to read names quickly. And we want them also to have an ear for listening to names.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Alexia D. Agueri (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Siavash Khosh Sokhan Monfared.

KOGAN: Sarah Gallop is one MIT's eight readers.

SARAH GALLOP: When we feel that we just aren't comfortable with the pronunciation of the name, we will send an email to 60, 40, 75 students, sort of depends on the year, saying I would like to pronounce your name correctly at commencement. Could you please call my voicemail and leave your name slowly twice? And, you know, thank you very much.

KOGAN: Gallop says about two thirds of them actually do it.

PRITHVIRAJ SUNDARARAMAN: So the way to pronounce my name properly is Prithviraj Sundararaman. Prithviraj Sundararaman.

KOGAN: Gallop listens carefully, jotting down a phonetic spelling that makes sense to her with accent marks and arrows to indicate the rise and fall of the voice. If something's not clear, she'll call the student back.

SUNDARARAMAN: The Sundararaman is more of a Sundararaman. Maybe a...


SUNDARARAMAN: Yeah. It's not a hard D. It's kind of a O-U at the beginning and then a not really a hard D.

GALLOP: Is it a dha (ph), dha, - Dararaman (ph), dha?

SUNDARARAMAN: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Right. Yeah, so Sundararaman.

GALLOP: Sundar - oh, that's tough. Sundararaman. I'm going to have to work on that.


KOGAN: For those who don't respond, Gallop goes to online pronunciation sites. But that, she says, is a little dangerous.

GALLOP: With the Chinese names, the issue is completely about pronunciation. So for example, you might have the name Zhu, Z-H-U. Now, depending on where the student is from, Zhu students from, Zhu can be pronounced Zhu, Shu (ph), Zu (ph), Chu (ph). And those are just a few examples.

KOGAN: At the actual ceremony, she's under the gun - remember, one name every two seconds. So basic English names are occasionally botched. John can come out as Jim. Tom is read Tim.

GALLOP: It's inevitable that we make mistakes. It happens to every one of us. I think the worst feeling is when we make a mistake on a simple name, a straightforward name.

KOGAN: But they never correct themselves. They keep going. Sarah Gallop just says silently to herself...

GALLOP: I'm so sorry.

KOGAN: Gallop says after reading a name, she can tell instantly if it came out right.

GALLOP: Because the student might make a face if you've said it wrong or smile if you've said it right. But the best thing of all is when you've worked with a student back and forth on email and voicemail. You get it right, and the student looks at us and smiles at us. That's the best feeling.

KOGAN: No doubt, their families feel the same way. For NPR News, I'm Judith Kogan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Judith Kogan