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!