How to Pick the Perfect Multilingual Name
Need an international baby name that works across different languages? It can be challenging, but we’ve got some tips and ideas to help you find a marvelously multilingual name that brings your family's cultures together.
If your family speaks multiple languages, you probably want your child to have a name that all their relatives can say. This may sound obvious — but parents who didn’t consider it have found it can be embarrassing and upsetting when grandma can’t pronounce her granddaughter’s name. As well as practicalities, you may also want a name that connects your child to the different parts of their heritage.
Or maybe you live in a linguistically diverse area, or plan on traveling, and you’d like their name to make sense to the people they’re likely to meet.
So how do you balance everything? A name that works across languages, that helps your kid blend in or stand out in all the right ways… and which you like too?
No two families are the same, and the options will be different depending on the languages you’re working with.
In research for a Masters thesis, I interviewed 20+ parents in multilingual families about how they named their children. (You can hear me talk about some of them here.) Based on their experiences and wider reading in the baby name world, here are five tried-and-tested strategies that multilingual families can use. Which one works for you?
1. Universal: a name that’s the same across languages
You could keep life simple with one name that everyone pronounces more or less the same.
It’s easiest when your languages are closely related and/or have shared culture. For example, hundreds of names sound similar in English and French, but the pool is smaller for options that work in both Thai and Turkish. But there are some surprisingly international names out there. (One of my favourite ever real name-spottings was a Welsh-Pakistani boy named Idris.)
Another option is names that are known worldwide, even if they don't come from your languages. These include some of the most popular names — Emma and Noah are in the Top 10 in many European countries — and pop culture choices that are widely recognised, like Arya and Lennon.
2. Chameleon: a name that adapts
Another strategy is a name that speakers of different languages can mold to their own shape, whether that's in spelling, pronunciation, or a whole new translated version.
For example, your son Gabriel might be “Gayb-riel” when he’s speaking English and “Gabb-riel” when he’s speaking French. Or your Polish in-laws might misspell your daughter’s name as Oliwia, but it sounds just like Olivia when they say it.
Classic baby names are ideal for this, because they’ve been around long enough to travel and take on their own form all over the world. Maybe you'll put Claire on the birth certificate, but to family in Italy she'll always be Chiara.
Or you could be playful and translate the meaning of the name: a famous example is the author Lev Tolstoy (whose name means "lion" in Russian), who is known as Leo in English, and in French as Léon.
3. Hybrid: first name from one language, middle name from another
You'd like your child’s name to represent all their cultural backgrounds. But what if they’re so different they don’t have many names in common — for example, English and Mandarin? And what if you just want to use your favorite name, with no compromise?
This is where middle names come in handy. Many parents choose a first name from one language and a middle name from another: both are legally part of the child's name, and they have the option to use either in different contexts. Your daughter Josephine Seo-yun might be Posie at home, Josephine at school, and Seo-yun to her grandparents in Korea. (And her full name when you really want her attention!)
4. Decisive: a name from one language that everyone can pronounce
On the other hand, you don’t have to use a name from every language your family speaks. Sometimes, the best solution can be to just pick a name you love from one.
Names, like borrowed words, can travel across language boundaries, and people can adapt to say them, even if they’re not familiar. Less than a hundred years ago, there were no children in America named Noelani or Saoirse or Amir or Kwasi. Now there are thousands. Today’s unusual import could be tomorrow’s household name.
You may want to run it past a few people to check how comfortably they can say it, and how you feel about the way they pronounce it. If you don’t want to reveal the exact name before your baby arrives, you could get a feel for likely issues by going through a list of popular baby names in your language.
It’s worthwhile doing a meaning check, too. Your Filipino family might love the name Malaya, but your Swahili-speaking relatives probably won’t.
5. Playful: name in one language, nickname in another
If the name you plan to use might be tricky for some of your loved ones, offering them a nickname (or asking them to help choose one) is a way to create a special bond between them and your child.
It could be connected to the name: your son Alexander might be Alex to his friends, but he’ll always be Sandro to his Nonno and Nonna. Or maybe your anglophone parents just can’t manage Gugulethu, but are happy to call their granddaughter Treasure.
Or it could be something completely unrelated, like their favorite term of endearment.
Multilingual Names For Siblings
So you’ve figured out the perfect name for your kid: you love it, it honors their heritage, and all the grandparents can say it. Now what to do if they get a little brother or sister?
You could choose a name that works exactly the same way again. Or alternatively, the next child’s name could be a chance to redress the balance by swapping languages, or using a name you realize wouldn’t have been so difficult after all. Either way, a growing family can be a great chance to celebrate the richness of your children’s heritage in their names.
Did you have a multilingual mission naming your child? What worked (or not) for you? If you have a naming story to tell, email firstname.lastname@example.org