Stanford is offering a new service that allows students to record the pronunciation of their names so faculty, staff and other students can listen – clicking on a speaker button – and learn how to say the names correctly.

Tom Black

Tom Black (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Using the web service, known as NameCoach, students also can identify their preferred gender pronouns.

“We want to encourage a culture of respect on campus, and one of the best ways to convey respect to someone is to get their name right – and to get their pronouns right, too,” University Registrar Tom Black said. Black announced the new service in a letter to students on Aug. 10.

So far, approximately 300 students have recorded the pronunciation of their names using the web service, which was created by Stanford graduate students who later established a company, also known as NameCoach, to develop and market the technology.

Dereca Blackmon, associate dean and director of the Diversity and First Generation Student Office, said mispronouncing students’ names and using the wrong pronouns can increase “belonging uncertainty,” which Stanford research shows can affect a student’s performance, stress levels and overall sense of being a valued part of the community.

Blackmon said the new service will help faculty, students and staff foster a sense of belonging among students.

“One of the best ways to convey respect to someone is to get their name right – and to get their pronouns right.”

—Tom Black, University Registrar

“For example, our gender non-conforming students have come to expect that our community will make an effort to ask for the correct pronouns before assuming their gender,” Blackmon said. “Yet many members of our community still feel unsure how to approach the subject of gender pronouns. This service makes it easier for students’ identities and cultures to be respected.”

Black said Stanford will integrate the recordings into class rosters on Axess and Stanford Canvas, the university’s learning management system, into the databases maintained by the Student Services Center and into select web pages used in Residential Education.

Stanford students have a tradition of welcoming first-year students on move-in day by memorizing their names and calling them out when new students arrive at their dorms. “This new service just builds on that tradition – using technology,” Black said.

He hopes to connect the service to all of the software used on campus, so that when someone’s name appears on a web page, a speaker button will appear with it.

“We’re also going to roll out a general purpose search screen, so if you wanted to look somebody up, you could key in their name and see if they have recorded the pronunciation of their name,” Black said.

In 2015, the School of Medicine used the pronunciation service for its commencement ceremony. Last summer, the Registrar’s Office invited academic departments across campus to use the service – Stanford obtained a site license – for their diploma ceremonies. During those two commencement cycles, more than 2,000 students used the service.

Praveen Shanbhag, co-founder and product engineer at NameCoach, said his name has been mispronounced throughout his life, but the real trigger for developing the technology was hearing his younger sister’s name mispronounced during her college graduation.

Shanbhag, who earned a doctorate in philosophy in 2014 at Stanford, said the challenge of pronouncing unfamiliar names correctly is universal.

“I like to say that for every name, there is someone somewhere who doesn’t know how to pronounce it,” Shanbhag said.