“Your English is excellent”

Today it happened again. I’ve been told how well I speak English and how wonderful my accent is. I understand that this is meant as a compliment. Except usually, it is not.

Since I came to this country all those years ago, I’ve been complimented on my English. It happens almost daily. Whether it’s the accent, the vocabulary, the grammar, you name it, I heard it. At first, you think, ha ha, the complimenter appreciates all the hard work you have put into learning the language. And then you stop to think some more and you realise things are not what they seem. This leads you to wishing you wouldn’t hear it again.

And so, let’s start with that I am yet to hear ‘native speakers’, say, two Britons, compliment each other on their language. It also doesn’t happen, for example, in Poland. I wouldn’t say to a Pole I just met: ‘Wow, your Polish is really excellent.’ If I did, I suspect, I would be looked at it with bewilderment.

And here we come to my problem. Whenever I hear that I speak excellent English, I also hear that I am a foreigner. Yes, clever enough to learn your language very well, still, a foreigner.  That means I am this person who can be asked where I am from (do you, Britons, regularly ask each other where you come from?), whether I know a person in Białystok, what my children’s names are, or indeed, where I learnt to speak English so well. The last of the questions, I think, always carries this little implication that there is something strange about it. Perhaps even suspicious. I never know whether it’s about the level of EFL teaching in Poland or about foreigners being poor at languages.

And so, as you praise me, at the same time you put me outside your world. I am one of the ‘them’, an Other. In other words, your compliment comes at a price – you and I need to reaffirm our difference.

Here I want to make a little detour and make two additional points. Over the years, I’ve heard these compliments in many situations, among others, said to people whose English was not particularly good, sometimes simply bad. I always felt sorry for the recipient of such words. The words are patronising in the extreme and construct the addressee as an idiot who doesn’t understand their English is crap. A version of this is the complimenter saying: ‘Well, I don’t speak any Polish.’. And?? Does this make my English any better? Secondly, I often take care how I speak, but whatever I do, it is always taken to be the result of me not speaking the language well enough. For example, if I do not use a contraction (e.g. I say ‘do not’ instead of ‘don’t’), it means I don’t understand the language and it simply cannot mean that I might want to achieve a particular stylistic effect. Detour over.

Now, in contrast to some approaches to language learning, I think that the ultimate goal of a language learner is to speak in a way that will pass them as a ‘native speaker’. A Briton, in my case. Some people say, it’s impossible, some people say it’s unnecessary, alas, I disagree. I want to speak British English, so to say.

And so, every time you praise me for my English, extolling its grammar and breadth of vocabulary, you also tell me I have failed. For you tell me that you heard the foreigner in me. Otherwise, you would have said nothing. Every compliment on my English is like a thorn in my side – it not only reminds me that I will always be a foreigner, but it also reminds me that despite all this effort of mine, despite more than a quarter of a century here, I still haven’t done it. So, please, I beseech you, spare me your compliments. They make me a failure.

 

But things with language are complicated and the situation today was different from the usual compliments. Today, the compliment was paid by an American. We were talking about Chicago (the largest, possibly, now second largest Polish community in the world) and I said I was Polish. And, as if on cue, I heard I had a very good English accent.  It took me a few moments to understand that the particular context might have made the compliment different. First, it was because we were both foreigners, second, because he spoke with a very recognisable American accent. And so, after 25+ years, I might have heard a compliment that I can take at face value. Wow!

 

8 Comments
  1. Dariusz Galasinski

    Thanks for your comment. It’s exactly right – such praise robs us of the possibility of blending in.

  2. Dariusz Galasinski

    Well, nativeness is in the eye of the ideological beholder, which means that it is (almost) irrelevant what kind English you speak.

  3. I don’t really know what point I am making but I am a native english speaker (Irish) and was told at least 4 times a day how good my english was considering I was a foreigner working in Texas. So to sound native you must have the local accent or a “mid atlantic” accent. Both of which are either fake or lack “terroir”.

  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this message! I am not a foreigner, but my husband is. Every time I hear someone say that, I feel offended, even though I am not the foreigner, and the comment is not even directed towards me. My husband is actually frequently quite proud when people don’t realize for weeks that he is a foreigner. It really is a funny thing how we love to blend in, but also love to stand out. When it comes to this comment though, it can hurt. http://samedaytranslations.com/blog/

  5. Dariusz Galasinski

    Great example. I noticed that whenever I publish on Polish data, journal reviewers always pick on my English. When it is unclear what my nationality might be, they don’t. Go figure!

  6. Dariusz Galasinski

    I’m glad you couldn’t resist. Yes, no doubt there are plenty of cultural/social contexts which should be considered when unpicking language compliments. And yes, the fact that English is an international lingua franca, probably doesn’t help British attitudes towards language learning. After all, we, foreigners, are simply expected to speak English.

    But your comment does not undermine what I have written. You simply suggest that Othering happens somewhere else. And you might be right. I don’t know.

  7. Your written English is very good!

    Sorry – I couldn’t resist 🙂

    I think this is largely due to, as people have mentioned on Twitter, the fact that speaking a second language is inconceivable to many Brits, and they are astounded when they come across examples of it – even when someone’s second language is ‘simply bad’.

    I have a slightly different perspective on your situation in that I am British. I have spoken Spanish as a second language since I was a child. I have a degree in Spanish and I have lived for many years in Spanish speaking countries. My wife is a native Spanish speaker and we speak Spanish together at home and with our children. I certainly wouldn’t claim my Spanish is flawless, but it is not bad. In all my years in Spanish speaking countries, I was complemented on my Spanish only very rarely, people just took it for granted. (I also lived for a couple of years in Russia and learned some Russian – nowhere near the level of my Spanish, but again not bad. Likewise, I was never complemented on my Russian while in Russia).

    However, a few years ago my family and I moved to the UK. We speak Spanish together when we are out and about and I almost always receive complements from British people. It happens on public transport, in doctors’ waiting rooms, in cafes and so on and so on. They are simply astounded that a British person is speaking a foreign language. They almost always have no idea what I am saying but they are amazed nonetheless. I have had people who are world leaders in medical science be in awe of the fact can that I speak a second language. I think the fact that you are often asked where you learned English (I do get asked where I learned Spanish) is really the questioner wondering where on earth it is possibly to acquire such an outlandish skill.

    I certainly don’t doubt that you are sometimes experiencing covert xenophobia (my situation here is of course intrinsically different) but I suspect the British aversion to languages may be a large factor too.

    As PG Wodehouse wrote:
    “Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to speak French.”

    As an aside, in my experience, it is quite common for British people to ask each other where they are from (meaning, of course, which part of Britain).

  8. It reminds me an interview with Jerzy Kosiński. He was asked whether writing in English is not a discomfort for him as a foreigner. He answered with a story of a small experiment he performed at the university.
    He took an excerpt of a well-known American writer (from one of his not so popular book of course), presented to some American friends as his own and asked for a review. “You know, it’s really very, very good but… a native-born American wouldn’t say that this way.” After this answer he had no more scruples to write in English 🙂

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