Your English is not bad

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Thought-provoking observations by a native speaker:

"Racism in Hong Kong: why ‘your English is very good’ is not a compliment, it’s actually very insulting:  An Australian of Chinese descent reveals why she is offended every time she is praised for her excellent English-language skills", by Charmaine Chan, SCMP Magazine (5/19/18)


For context: I’m an Australian of Chinese descent whose mother tongue is English, a language I was taught in Malaysia (by British schoolmarms, no less, a decade after the country had gained independence from Britain). From age 10, when my family moved to Sydney, I was schooled in Strine. So maybe I should have been more specific when referring to idiomatic English. The fact is, people like me (many Hongkongers included) speak idiomatic Englishes. But let’s leave academia out of this discussion so everyone can join in.

Similar emotions simmered while I was growing up in Sydney, where my English was praised by white Australians who would have had difficulty locating Malaysia on a map. But things have improved. Thanks to globalisation, migration, television, travel and a host of other world-shrinking develop­ments, fewer people now connect English proficiency to an accent or skin colour.

Last week, a Chinese-American friend relayed a conversa­tion-stopping clanger at a dinner party in Hong Kong. Amid the banter, a well-known, Western-educated Chinese chef was asked, “How is it you speak English so well?” But this time the person with foot-in-mouth disease was Indian, which complica­ted the issue by multiples of 10. Her victim was left speechless.

But hadn’t the praise-giver been at the end of such back­handed compliments herself? Maybe not, although, in my search for thoughts on the topic, I happened on an online dis­cussion in which an Indian, whose first language is English, says, “I’m never sure how to react when people compliment me on my English. It feels like I’m being complimented on walking properly.”

When is a compliment for one's language skills backhanded, and when is it genuine?  Sometimes it's probably a confused mixture of both, and the person who makes such a remark may himself or herself not be entirely certain how he or she meant it to be taken.

In a separate, more moving lament, Polish linguist Dariusz Galasinski, who has lived in Britain for 25-plus years, says, “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 … So, please, I beseech you, spare me your compliments. They make me a failure.”

How would you feel if someone said to you, "Oh, your Mandarin / Cantonese / Russian / Hindi / Russian / French… is very good"?

[h.t. Mark Metcalf]


  1. Scott P. said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 8:54 am

    One of the best compliments on language ability I've heard came from a Russian who said to my brother, who was a Russian linguist: "I can't tell if you're an American who speaks perfect Russian or a Russian who speaks perfect English."

  2. Athel Cornish-Bowden said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 9:00 am

    I'm pleased when someone says it about my French or Spanish, because I know they"re far from perfect. However, if they said it about any of my daughter's languages then she'd be right to be offended, because she's fully fluent in English, French and Spanish, speaking all in a natural way. When she took a Spanish oral for her entry to a Grande École the first thing the examiner said after she said her first sentence was "D'où vient cet accent de merde ?" Evidently the examiner had never heard Chilean Spanish before, but at the end of the oral he was able to recognize that her Spanish was perfect, albeit not Madrileño. (A the level of comprehension rather than speaking her Portuguese, Catalan and Italian are pretty good as well.)

  3. Bathrobe said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 9:12 am

    If English, or any other language, is your native language, of course it's patronising to be told that your English is 'very good'. The meaning is, 'very good considering you're a non-native speaker'. And the only reason that you might be judged a non-native speaker is that you're not white. This is discrimination, pure and simple.

    If the language in question is not your native language the issue is more subtle. A non-native always runs the risk of not quite getting it right, provoking praise for his/her efforts in reaching the level that he/she has. If I am speaking Japanese and I'm told by a Japanese 'your Japanese is really good', I know that I've managed to fall below a threshold. I've said something awkward or something prototypically non-Japanese that reminds the Japanese speaker that I'm not Japanese and prompts a switch back to 'praise the non-native speaker' mode.

    An even more subtle issue is praise from people whose level is far below your own. I've had my Japanese innocently praised by young Chinese students of Japanese, which unfortunately ends up sounding insulting. The thinking on the part of the Chinese speaker is: 'Here's a foreign person, just like me, and a Westerner to boot, who has learnt Japanese amazingly well; how I wish I could get my Japanese to that level!'

    The thing is that I have a great deal more experience speaking Japanese than most young Chinese students, and the gap in levels is generally so glaring that making such a comparison is presumptuous. While I would certainly not style myself a professor, it's a bit like a student saying to a professor, 'Your level in biology (mathematics, name the field) is so high!' Most professors would be insulted by this. Unfortunately, many young Chinese naively think that praising a person whose level is far above their own is a sincere expression of admiration. I've sometimes had to tell young Chinese that expressing fulsome praise to a foreign academic for his/her high level in some field is actually insulting.

  4. Benedict Cox said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 9:27 am

    I have been speaking English all my life, it is my native language. I have sometimes been complimented on my use of English – by other native speakers and non-native speakers. I have never taken offence.
    Languages are like music. Why not felicitate musicians?

  5. outeast said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 9:28 am

    Just imagine how poor Eliza Doolittle must have felt. Hungarian??

  6. Michael Wise said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 9:33 am

    I get a lot of that in China. After a few simple phrases, always “your Chinese is so good!” Some of it has to be BS (I’d only spoken a little), but the compliment comes usually when someone tells another how good my Chinese is. That becomes the real compliment. (And yes, I do understand when they say those things; a non-Chinese fluent in the language is just rare, not unheard of).

  7. Charles in Toronto said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 9:37 am

    This is a close cousin of the "No, but where are you REALLY from?" question. Which carries the presupposition "You are not from here." And "Your English is very good!" can in context carry the presupposition "Your English shouldn't be good." In either case it's the assumption of not belonging to a language or place.

    In general if I meet someone in Canada/US who speaks excellent English and I'm curious about their background I'll start with the presupposition that they're local and they belong. "Did you grow up in the (this city) area?" And if they did, they are not insulted. If they didn't, the response is either neutral or flattered that I thought they could be from here. And then if they want to talk about where they or their parents are from they will, and if they don't they will talk about what they love about the city.

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 9:48 am

    Bathrobe said : "If English, or any other language, is your native language, of course it's patronising to be told that your English is 'very good'. I respectfully disagree. When visiting Wu Han in or around 2005, and thus very early on in my attempts to learn Mandarin (a.k.a. Putonghua), I and my wife (Vietnamese-Chinese) had lunch in a Wu Han restaurant. The waiter's Chinese was so easy for me to understand that, without thinking, I said "Nǐde hànyǔ hěn hǎo!", and the waiter laughed uproariously. No-one was offended, no-one felt patronised, and after I had explained (via my wife, whose Mandarin was better than mine) that what I really meant was "Your (spoken) Chinese is very easy for a foreigner to understand", the waiter was both pleased and delighted.

  9. arthur waldron said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 9:52 am

    I would say thank you and leave it at that. Explaining takes too long, Unless this is a person who genuinely cares about or vice versa or ideally both. Years ago I was in Jerusalem. I found myself in an English group that thrust the written text into my hands, At each pilgrimage point I read to the best of my ability, At the end one well meaning British lady said "I never imagined that an American could read English so beautifully" (my accent is NBC English which in the old days meant the New York capital region, which they considered most neutral. Not a hint of anglicization). Odd, I thought. But I said "Well thank you very much. This has been a joy." Be sef confident. If they are asking, that means you are really good, nay, even native. But be nice to well meaning people. Arthur

  10. arthur waldron said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 9:59 am

    On the other hand, the gread Nirad Chaudhuri 1897-1999 wrote a little handbook for writers of English who like him were not born to it.

    He stressed that diction, spelling, puncuation, etc. must be PERFECT. Otherwise it will be said (his words) "The Nigger does not know English."

    I believe his autobiography is a classic of English literature. He had the wisdom derived from his life. He had never left India and taught himself European and Classical languages in the Bombay public library. I daresay he was not unfamiliar with well intended condescension. Arthur

  11. Mark Hansell said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 10:03 am

    As a Mandarin speaking waiguoren who can muster up near-native sounding speech over short stretches now and then, I am usually happy to hear this, although I know what it really means is "you speak a lot better than most people who look like you", which is unfortunately true. But if I were a native English-speaking Chinese-American being complimented on my English, I would be profoundly insulted, since the subtext would be "people that look like you aren't real Americans." (As Charles says above, the same is true of "Where are you from? No, where are you REALLY from?")
    Verbal compliments may or may not be sincere, actions are more reliable. The best compliment I ever got was when I was in a cafeteria in in Taiwan, chatting with some friends. The woman in front of me turned around an let out a little shriek as if a rat had just run across her foot. It turns out that based on the sounds of our conversation, the last thing she expected was to see was a face like mine. She was of course very embarrassed, but I assured her that hers was the most sincere compliment I had ever gotten!

  12. arthur waldron said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 10:14 am

    Mark is right. I have the same ability to sound real for short stretches but remembeer how many accents not to mention topolects there are in Chinese. I get my kicks ordering airline tickets.All is smooth until tjhe nice lady asks my name: Waldron (whiskey alpha lima oscar delta november) when with unfeigned shock she says unbelievingly "you are a foreigner?" Beats Route 66. Good salve for our endlessly bruised egos. In France when things go wong they turn to le système D" I asked a colleague who does nothing but French; he said it was B. I don't even know French. Think how he felt. As a doctor once counselled me "Mr Waldron, you must grow a thicker skin." Good advice. La lutte continue. Best to all Athur

  13. arthur waldron said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 10:19 am

    That should be delta romeo oscar. But my NATO alphabet is not bad for a non military type. My son Second Lieutenant Theodore Waldron is near native. Idea: shall we propose to NEA that we present great classic poems read in NATO alphabet, maybe with bits of music? I think that is good for a million dollars. Arthur

  14. Fionnbharr Ó Duinnín said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 10:43 am

    There aren't the racial/ethnic undertones with regards to English people speaking other languages, so I don't mind being complimented on my Hungarian, as long as this is said to me in Hungarian. If they switch to English to tell me, I am clearly being patronised.

    Typically, this happens mid-conversation when I'm asked something on the presumption I'm Hungarian and I have to explain I'm not a local, so I don't know. For example, I avoid wearing a coat as much as possible, to when I'm asked "aren't you cold?" (Nem fázol/fázik?), I'd answer I'm not as sensitive to the cold as the people from here (Igazán, nem vagyok annyira fagyoskodó, mint az itteniek).

    As an aside, the word for '"being sensitive to the cold" in northern UK English is 'nesh' (ga: dearóil; es: friolento; fr: frileux de: Fröstling), but I can't use it with anyone from the South.

  15. Miles Archer said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 10:44 am

    I have an opposite example. I had a co-worker who is of 100% Japanese ancestry. He is in the second or third generation of the original Japanese immigrants to San Francisco. He spoke only English, essentially no Japanese. When he went to Japan on business, they thought he was mentally deficient- How could a Japanese person not know Japanese?

  16. arthur waldron said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 10:57 am

    When I livd out East many years ago, Americans of Chinwaw anxcedstry were regularly told "it's i the blood." So come his Los Angeles remained fluent while his Chinese got no further than "beer" This seems ridiculous but it is increasigly received doctrine among the faculties of our universities, who seem innocent of about 200 years of biology. Arthur

  17. CD said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 11:41 am

    Bathrobre has it right. You need to think about context. In the context of the OP, which some folks are ignoring, the compliment's assumption is that you don't belong.

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 11:51 am

    In the context of Hong Kong, if Ms. Chan speaks English with a notable Australian accent I would think that would be a pretty strong signal that her personal background and life history is significantly different than that of the median person in HK of ethnic-Chinese appearance, such that an interlocutor should infer that any baseline statistical assumptions about how fluent in English such median person of such appearance in that locale should be expected to be ought to be discarded as irrelevant to the situation at hand.

  19. J Rohsenow said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 12:25 pm

    I too have managed to "pass" on the telephone, but my two favorite moments were (1)one night in Taiwan when I got in the back of a sleepy taxi driver's cab and then he nearly jumped out of his skin when we arrived and he turned around to collect the fare (guess he hadn't looked in the mirror), and (2) when I hired a TA for my Chinese class over the phone long distance, and then when she showed up she would't believe that I was the person she had been talking to. When I ask people where they thought I was from, they always say they thought I was from [some other place than where they are from, e.g., TW, ML, whatever]. But as others have already noted, I can only "pass" for a short time, and only when they can't see me.

  20. Ambarish Sridharanarayanan said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 12:39 pm

    > When is a compliment for one's language skills backhanded, and when is it genuine?

    I feel like this is a false dichotomy. In my mind, the dichotomy is not back-handed vs. genuine, it's back-handed vs. patronising: in other words, the most genuine compliment is still patronising, for reasons other comments have described.

    So I guess I don't think it's ever OK to praise someone's language facility in speech. It may be fair game, though, to praise someone's writing as, say, especially fluid.

  21. Shawn W said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 1:34 pm

    For other Singaporeans living in America who get this all the time, I offer this response: "Thanks, I worked really hard on it" preferably with a friend nearby you can exchange mocking glances with. That's really about the level of racism there is here, not that much to fuss about

  22. Ellen K. said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 1:43 pm

    To go along with what Ambarish Sridharanarayanan wrote, I would say it's not the praise that's insulting, it's the assumptions that go along with it. If someone compliments my Spanish, I would think they correctly deduce that I'm a non-Hispanic American who learned Spanish as a second language in school, and I wouldn't be insulted. But if context suggested a subtext of "wow, a white person speaks Spanish" as if that's a contradiction, then, yeah, that would be insulting.

    As for complimenting someone on their English abilities, it's not something I've ever thought to say or write, except where someone has given an unnecessarily apology for the supposedly poor English (usually in writing on the Internet, where accent issues don't come into play).

  23. DaveK said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 2:41 pm

    I once committed an unintentional faux pas like this. I was chatting with an East-Asian looking woman. The conversation turned to the weather and after she’d said how much she disliked cold I asked where she from, thinking she’d grown up down south. She said, quite pleasantly, that she was from Korea but had spent the last 5 years in Virginia. Up until then, I hadn’t heard any trace of a foreign accent, but of course couldn’t say anything with digging myself in deeper. Still feel bad about that.

  24. Lupus753 said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 3:15 pm

    @Ellen K.: "But if context suggested a subtext of "wow, a white person speaks Spanish" as if that's a contradiction, then, yeah, that would be insulting."

    Which is weird, considering the language was created in western Europe.

  25. Ralph Hickok said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 3:18 pm

    When I was 8 or 9 years old, a kid in my class told me that I talked like a teacher…and he meant it as an insult :)

  26. Len said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 3:47 pm

    I'm a native English monoglot who has studied several European languages to a range of levels from "can say a few basic things" to "can comfortably converse with locals". When my abilities in ANY of those languages are praised by a native speaker, I welcome it as a genuine compliment. It hardly surprises me that they notice my English accent.

    Of course, this situation is totally different from someone who is complimented for speaking their FIRST language, or an emigrant who, after many years of living their life in a second language, continues to face daily assessment of their ability by strangers.

  27. MPP said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 5:50 pm

    My mother is from Sweden and has lived in the US for decades. People can often detect that she has an accent, probably non-native, but usually can't place where it's from since it's subtle (although from her appearance you can figure that they would guess one of the paler European countries). But I've never heard someone _praise_ her English as being so good*, even if they know she's not from here. Whereas even native speakers will hear that if they look Asian.

    *of course, it really is less impressive to speak very good English if your native language is Swedish compared to a non-Germanic language. English is probably the easiest non-Nordic language for a Swedish speaker to learn. I know Swedes typically find it easier than even German, for example.

  28. Anne Cutler said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 5:51 pm

    There is room for bad behaviour in either direction in this space. Many years, nay, decades, ago, my first academic job was teaching German to Australians. When we had visiting German dignitaries around, I (fresh from a couple of years studying in Bonn) was able to insert just enough of a touch of Rheinland accent into my German, at the right time, to elicit from them the remark "Oh, you're from the Rheinland" – always, of course, in front of my students. Despite a possibly laudable goal (adding extra cred to the taught language facts), self-disgust at this was, if not the main reason, one of the reasons I got out of that line of work as soon as I could.

  29. David Morris said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 6:00 pm

    I would never say 'Your English is very good' to anyone outside a classroom or who hadn't said something self-disparaging first.

    When I speak Korean, people either totally don't understand me (mostly my English language students), say 'Your Korean is very good' (mostly my English language students) or laugh (mostly my wife and her friends). When I get offended, they say 'But your Korean is so cute', as if this is a compliment, and makes up for laughing in the first place. Possibly I have picked up feminine speech patterns from listening to them.

    I have on occasions asked someone 'What's your family's background?' and once recently asked someone who spoke perfect Australian English 'Were you born here or in China?' (as her case was). She had, in fact, been born here.

  30. Alex said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 6:18 pm

    I think it really depends on the environment that you are in.

    I was born and lived in the Cherry Hill, Philadelphia suburban area (Philly for university and adult life), US, for 36 years before moving here to Shenzhen, China 11 years ago.

    I raised a question on LL about taxi drivers having to ask 2 or 3 times when my "white" friends say the directions in perfect enough Chinese for Shenzhen. Perfect enough because its Shenzhen and not Wuhan as I can see where they would be used to Wuhan accent.

    I often get complimented on my English ability by natives until I tell them I was born and raised in the US. My sons also get complimented on how amazing they are to be able to speak both languages fluently as I have a rule only English in the house as they get enough Chinese environment as they attend public school.

    When I explain to the people my sons' English is only a result of English being my "hometown language" and that they wouldn't be amazed if a local boy spoke fluent Cantonese and Putonghua the people understand better.

    Usually when school semesters are ending English Training centers would have "white" faces standing outside handing out flyers and because I am Chinese by ethnicity I would get handed several when my boys are with me. Once in awhile I'd strike up a conversation to find out what countries these teachers are from and clearly there is a bias by my interlocutor when they aren't from a native English and diverse country. Even though they know I'm from the US they cant register that my English level is probably above theirs and in a weird way they try to test me by using what they perceive as less frequently used vocabulary.

    To me this is just an example of their native environment. Growing up in the US i've never received a compliment that my oral English was so good not even in Elementary school.

    As for here in SZ I think people in general people should take things at face value, compliments are compliments as I often get, "ah ok I thought you were Korean" when a sentence I use doesn't flow as smoothly when trying to recollect certain non high frequency words.

    As for the friend of the subject of the article. she or he should take a "chill pill" and realize that her interlocutors are just a product of their environment and mean no harm. The best way she can help the situation is to explain nicely and calmly oh yeah I grew up in an English environment and realise

    "But things have improved. Thanks to globalisation, migration, television, travel and a host of other world-shrinking develop­ments, fewer people now connect English proficiency to an accent or skin colour."

  31. Krogerfoot said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 6:24 pm

    This thread is remarkably free of the type of comment that would overwhelmingly dominate anywhere else: “It doesn’t offend me, therefore it shouldn’t offend Ms. Chan PEOPLE ARE TOO SENSITIVE THESE DAYS AND IT ABSOLUTELY INFURIATES ME”

  32. Jenny Chu said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 6:42 pm

    On the "Your [target language] is not so good!" end of the scale:

    When I lived in Vietnam, one of our clients asked my (Vietnamese) colleague, "So, that woman who answers the phone sometimes at your office [referring to me] … what exactly is wrong with her?" implying a speech impediment. My colleague, up for a joke, said only, "Oh, you'll understand when you meet her!"

    When he did meet me in person some time later, my colleague said, "Here's the one you were asking about!" and the client did a double take (I look obviously non-Vietnamese) and laughed out loud. "NOW I get it!!"

    So it was, in a way, a true compliment: I spoke Vietnamese well enough that he couldn't imagine I was a foreigner; my verbal flaws were only enough to make him wonder if I had perhaps an injury or a physical disability!

  33. Saurs said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 7:31 pm

    I would say thank you and leave it at that.

    Bully for you.

    Be sef [sic] confident.


    But be nice to well meaning people.

    Again, no.

    Good salve for our endlessly bruised egos.


    As a doctor once counselled me "Mr Waldron, you must grow a thicker skin." Good advice.

    Mm-hmm. No.

  34. Bathrobe said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 7:39 pm

    self-disgust at this was, if not the main reason, one of the reasons I got out of that line of work as soon as I could.

    I developed a similar feeling about being the 'performing gaijin' in Japan. Once I had the opportunity to watch Kent Derricot (a much lionised foreign tarento at the time) on location. The guy managed to talk non-stop Japanese about anything and everything while an entire very large table of Japanese just sat there and listened. I decided I never wanted to be like that and became more conscious of avoiding cheap praise and publicity in dealing with Japanese.

  35. Bruce said,

    May 19, 2018 @ 11:13 pm

    I think Len has it right.

    "How would you feel if someone said to you, "Oh, your Mandarin / Cantonese / Russian / Hindi / Russian / French… is very good"?"

    If posed to a native English speaker who, er, is visibly of Anglo European descent, then it would be natural to take it as a compliment, as we would be admiring their second language skills.

    I think the proper analogy would be more like an ethnically German person, born and raised in, say, Canada, being told that his English is excellent.

    Of course, such a person would be unlikely to be asked that, and the reason is the crux of the ancedote.

  36. Ryan said,

    May 20, 2018 @ 12:48 am

    As a person of Chinese descent who was born in the United States (who, incidentally, doesn't even speak a lick of his native language), I can relate greatly to the writer of the original article, as I continually have to deal with other Americans who naturally assume that I'm a foreigner who doesn't speak English. Nevertheless, part of the post does resonate with me:
    "the person who makes such a remark may himself or herself not be entirely certain how he or she meant it to be taken."
    As presumptuous as it is to assume that people who look different from the majority are foreigners, I find it equally presumptuous to assume that someone making the remark has any ill intent or at the very least that the remark is necessarily indicative of one's biases. I find it better to take such a remark purely at face value.

  37. B.Ma said,

    May 20, 2018 @ 1:08 am

    @Krogerfoot May 19, 2018 @ 6:24 pm

    …except for the comment immediately above yours which you probably didn't see at the time you were commenting!


    The range of comments posted so far show that such compliments, whether meant in good faith or patronizing, can still have a range of meanings, and there can be a range of possible responses.

    Here are some of the responses I have used…
    …if I feel the (white) person is being unintentionally insulting: "Your English is pretty amazing too!"
    …if the person is younger than me: "I hope so because I've been speaking English for longer than you!"
    …if I feel the person is being deliberately ignorant and I don't like them: "It had better be because English is the only language I speak!" (not true but don't care)
    …if it seems they genuinely don't see why it might be annoying and I want to make them slightly uncomfortable: "Thanks, I'm working on my Chinese too"


    The only time I recall truly being complimented on my langauge skills is when I visited Kaohsiung and a local person casually inserted "oh, so you've come down from Taipei have you" into a conversation. His reaction to finding out that I'm from the UK and Hong Kong, and thus my main Chinese language is Cantonese, was "Wow, I couldn't hear [any trace of an HK accent] at all!"


    I try my best not to make assumptions but the reason for many stereotypes (but definitely not all) is that they are true most of the time. So most of the time when I see a white person in HK they probably won't speak any Cantonese, and outside of Asia, they almost certainly don't. So when someone who doesn't look Chinese turns out to be able to speak any of the Chinese languages my natural reaction is to wonder why. But sometimes when I steer the conversation in that direction it comes out the wrong way, though it's usually due to my poor oratory skills rather than any malice.

    On a flight out of Hong Kong, I heard someone speak good Mandarin to a flight attendant which sounded a bit like Prof Mair (based on hearing him speak on Youtube)… then later he spoke some excellent Cantonese to his children, who looked white! The funny thing was that English was the native language of the flight attendant, as she was a British-Chinese.

  38. Len said,

    May 20, 2018 @ 1:35 am

    For people who relocate abroad, the first time they're complimented for their second-language skills is probably, in many cases, a nice surprise. But I wonder how many weeks/months/years before "Oh, your X-ish is very good!" ceases to be a pleasant experience and becomes, if nothing worse, at least a dull routine.

  39. Bart said,

    May 20, 2018 @ 2:29 am

    I’m a British expat. Sometimes tourists and other visitors, thinking I’m a native of my adopted country, ask me how I’ve acquired such good English. If I’m feeling saucy I give true but misleading replies such as ‘I went to a school where we spoke English all the time, and I watch a lot of BBC TV.’.

  40. Ralph Hickok said,

    May 20, 2018 @ 6:31 am

    I can't help thinking of the song, "You Did It," from "My Fair Lady":

    "Her English is too good", he said,
    "That clearly indicates that she is foreign.
    Whereas others are instructed in their native language
    English people aren't.
    And although she may have studied with an expert
    Dialectician and grammarian
    I can tell that she was born Hungarian!"

  41. Andreas Johansson said,

    May 20, 2018 @ 11:32 am

    I sort of stopped caring about L1 speakers' evaluation of my English when I in fairly quick succession got it described as both "better than a native's"* and "irremediable".

    * The reason it was better was, apparently, that it was more formal. Near as I can tell, the evaluator genuinely thought that was a good thing.

  42. Matthew said,

    May 20, 2018 @ 3:31 pm

    I have lived in Germany for 40 years now. I never tried to get the language perfect. As long as I could communicate at all, I was happy. So at some point it leveled off with an accent or a use of words that made it clear that I was not from here.

    At times this would cause people to ask where I am from. I would say Ireland, and then be told 'You speak German very well'. I know they probably meant well, but sometimes I couldn't resist saying, 'Thank you , you too'

    This always provoked the same embarrassed response. A pause where the first reaction to say 'Well of course. I was born and grew up here' was quickly suppressed because it made it sound like 'You speak German very well for an Auslander' although they really had no intention of being that condescending.

    I really shouldn't do this to nice people who mean well. These days I will only use it with people I know will understand the joke and realize that they have been set up for a punch-lineand no harm is done.

  43. Victor Mair said,

    May 20, 2018 @ 4:33 pm

    The greatest compliment I ever received for speaking a foreign language well happened in Nepal. After being posted by myself to a remote mountain town called Bhojpur (where there was no chance to speak English) for a couple of years, my Nepali became almost as fluent as my English.

    One day I was walking along a mountain path with an old Nepali lady. For a few hours, we walked down one side of a mountain valley and up the other side, holding an animated conversation the whole way. We talked about all manner of things — animals, farming, family, Kathmandu, and so forth.

    Finally, when we got to the top of the other side of the valley, there was a fork in the path, and she had to take one path to her village, and I had to go on another path to go across a big river. As we were about to part, she said very naturally, "Too bad you don't speak Nepali. Otherwise we could have a really good conversation."

    At first that flummoxed me, but then it gave me a good chuckle and made me happy. Of course, when she looked at me I appeared as a weird human specimen who could not possibly speak her language. Yet we had just had a thoroughly thrilling, entirely enjoyable two hour conversation! While we were talking, the old lady had completely forgotten what I looked like and just treated me as another person, without regard to my appearance. It was only when we were about to part that she focused on my ungainly physiognomy.

    I've had similar experiences speaking Mandarin, but nothing quite so dramatic as that mystical encounter with an old woman on a mountainside in eastern Nepal.

  44. Adam Berman said,

    May 20, 2018 @ 8:58 pm

    "But this time the person with foot-in-mouth disease was Indian, which complica­ted the issue by multiples of 10"

    There seems to be a bit of her own obliviousness baked in here; why should someone from one English-speaking country and living in another not be impressed that a foreigner speaks their language well? Because of the color of their skin?

  45. Victor said,

    May 20, 2018 @ 9:20 pm

    arthur waldron,

    Regarding the NATO alphabet, very much offtopic, but slightly not –

    My first job was as a "maintenance programmer" for an Air Force command and control system. In that role, I'd receive problem reports from sites and would analyze the problem, and if it was a program error, code and test a fix which would go through a process which involved about about half a dozen sign-offs before it could be installed in the next interim release.

    Sites were allowed to install the fixes earlier at their discretion. There was one particular site which would always call me for the status, and want me to read the code change to them over the phone. This was the late 60's so no email, and they couldn't wait for the weekly mailing of completed, but not approved changes.

    We're talking assembly language changes, so the "vocabulary" was the small set of computer instructions. I'd read off something like "add speed" and they'd respond "say again". I'd reply "add speed – a-d-d s-p-e-e-d", and they'd again give that say again, and maybe then say "was that alpha delta delta sierra papa echo echo delta?" I didn't know the NATO alphabet, and after playing that in my head, would say "yes, add speed". This repeated and repeated.

    So I got a copy of the NATO alphabet, and started practicing. I'd drive home and read the road signs out aloud. Eventually I got quite good. Even today I can recite the alphabet in about 7 seconds (but don't try to understand me!)

    And once I was proficient, the next time that site called me and gave me that "say again", I recited the line back using the NATO alphabet as fast as I could. The person replied "so that is 'add speed'?" and never played that game again.

  46. ajay said,

    May 21, 2018 @ 4:59 am

    I give true but misleading replies such as ‘I went to a school where we spoke English all the time, and I watch a lot of BBC TV.’

    Nice one.

    A related topic: how should a native speaker of English react when he is told, in English, by a Russian, that he speaks English very well for a Russian?

  47. Philip Taylor said,

    May 21, 2018 @ 5:25 am

    Re the ITU phonetic alphabet and figure code ("NATO alphabet"), it has become virtually universal in the U.K. to use this when giving post-codes. Thus I will always give mine as Papa Lima Two Six Eight Hotel Lima" and this is immediately comprehensible to the other party, whether we are speaking over the telephone or in person. It takes me about eight seconds to recite the alphabet from memory, so not quite as quick as Victor, but I used it professionally for seven years when working in international telegraphy.

  48. richardelguru said,

    May 21, 2018 @ 5:31 am

    I'm always amused and somewhat pleased when people here (in the States) compliment me on my English: but then I am a native RP speaker.* They also tend to say "I love your accent" when I obviously don't have one.

    * actually, is that possible?

  49. Victor Mair said,

    May 21, 2018 @ 6:13 am

    From the time i was a little boy (4, 5, 6 and on upward into adulthood), people have always remarked on my unusual accent. Even though I'm from bellwether Stark County, Ohio, smack dab in the Midwest, I do not sound like my neighbors, and don't even sound like my brothers and sisters. Strangers of all races and nations from near and far would say something like "Where are you from? You have an unusual accent. You don't sound like an American. Are you from Europe?"

    I always took such remarks as a compliment. Never once was I offended.

    I think that the reason this happened is that my vocabulary — most of which I picked up from things I read — always greatly exceeded what I heard being spoken by people around me, so I had to rely on dictionaries, movies, broadcasts, and so forth to know how to pronounce the lower frequency items. I was also — by nature — very careful about articulation and enunciation. That was part of my character, and I could not help myself from pronouncing things as precisely and carefully as I could.

    So what was my accent? It was my very own, and I was proud of it — not inordinately so, just pleased that I had a special accent and that people noticed it.

  50. Alex said,

    May 21, 2018 @ 9:36 am

    "The person replied "so that is 'add speed'?" and never played that game again"

    I love that!

  51. PeterL said,

    May 21, 2018 @ 11:45 am

    Best compliment — being told that it sounded like I had learned Japanese in Ōsaka.

    Most annoying compliment — being told that I'm good at handling chopsticks (お箸).

  52. Victor Mair said,

    May 21, 2018 @ 12:10 pm

    Speaking of chopsticks….

    Once in the winter break of 1971-72, I went to visit my male students who were undergoing military training (all young men in Taiwan have to serve in the army). I watched the recruits doing exercises, learning to use their rifles, and so forth.

    At noon, I went to a large cafeteria and sat down in one corner to have lunch. There were about 300 recruits filling the big hall. They were voraciously shovelling rice into their mouths from the bowls that they brought up next to their lips.

    All of a sudden, a big general stood up and shouted loudly (in Mandarin):

    "Recruits! [dead silence ensued] Stop eating! Foreigner! Keep eating! Recruits! Watch how the foreigner uses his chopsticks! [600 eyes glued to me] He uses his chopsticks correctly! Learn from the foreigner!"

    It's true. I use my chopstick more properly than almost every single Chinese I know, some of whom have the most ungainly ways of holding their chopsticks that it often makes me wonder how they manage to get anything in their mouths.

    I learned from a book and from teachers of etiquette how to use chopsticks. Most Chinese learn how to use chopsticks by themselves. Nobody teaches them.

  53. PeterL said,

    May 21, 2018 @ 12:39 pm

    Next time I'm complemented on my use of chopsticks, I'll say that the complements should be to my wife, who corrects me from time to time (she's a highly certified "tea ceremony" teacher (教授) of the 表千家 school).

    BTW, I wish that there were a better translation for 茶道 — "ceremony" implies the wrong things in English (I suppose "ritual" would be even worse of a translation, except amongst Confucian scholars).

  54. Peter Taylor said,

    May 21, 2018 @ 2:18 pm

    I have an opposite example. I had a co-worker who is of 100% Japanese ancestry. He is in the second or third generation of the original Japanese immigrants to San Francisco. He spoke only English, essentially no Japanese. When he went to Japan on business, they thought he was mentally deficient- How could a Japanese person not know Japanese?

    A related example is a Gibraltarian I knew who spoke Spanish at pretty-good-for-a-foreigner level but with a perfect Andalusian accent. When he lived in Spain people thought he was Spanish and therefore his errors were attributed to being subnormal.

    For people who relocate abroad, the first time they're complimented for their second-language skills is probably, in many cases, a nice surprise. But I wonder how many weeks/months/years before "Oh, your X-ish is very good!" ceases to be a pleasant experience and becomes, if nothing worse, at least a dull routine.

    In my experience, "Your Spanish is very good" is nearly always followed by the question "How long have you lived here?" When the answer was two years, people were amazed at how I'd picked it up so fast. (Hint: I hadn't; I'd been learning it for half of my life already). But now that the answer is ten years, the response tends to be more "Oh, well then", and I sometimes get the impression that the expectation is that that's enough time to have picked it up by osmosis with no effort at all.

    A related topic: how should a native speaker of English react when he is told, in English, by a Russian, that he speaks English very well for a Russian?

    Depends on both parties' sense of humour, but I'd be tempted to acknowledge the compliment in English with an obvious calque from Russian. Unfortunately my Russian is negligible, but in a Spanish context it's fun to say "I defend myself".

  55. Philip Taylor said,

    May 21, 2018 @ 2:21 pm

    Well, OK, chopsticks / kuàizi / Stäbchen / … I was taught at the age of about 17 by Chung, a very friendly and avuncular waiter in my local Chinese restaurant, the Lotus Inn. When I first met my wife-to-be, I was a little over twice her age, and she invited me back to her family home for dinner after we had spent the day together in London. Her family (Chinese/Vietnamese) were extremely welcoming, and commented very positively on my dexterity with chopsticks. Perhaps unwisely, I could not help but reply "Well, I've been using them for longer than Lệ Khanh has been alive" !

  56. PeterL said,

    May 21, 2018 @ 2:47 pm

    I've found that "o-seiji" (お世辞) — "flattery" — works fairly well as a response to how wonderful my Japanese is. (Hint: it isn't wonderful.)

    Next time I'm praised for my chopsticks ability, I'l respond by praising my wife's tutelage (she has the highest teaching certfication (教授) for tea ceremony and corrects me from time to time on my manners).

    BTW, is there a better phrase than "tea ceremony" for 茶道? "Ceremony" has the wrong connotation in English. "Ritual" might be better, but probably only Confucian scholars would appreciate that usage.

  57. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 21, 2018 @ 4:57 pm

    I once met a postdoc, when I was about that age, who looked as if his ancestry was from "the paler European countries" (as MPP called them) and sounded as if he spoke excellent English for a foreigner. I don't remember whether his name sounded foreign. I asked him where he was from, and he said that before his present job he'd been in Cambridge (I think). I though that made it certain that he wasn't American. I decided to let him think he'd gotten away with his little deception, but I didn't care for it.

    Not too many years before that, I did a Bible reading at my sister's wedding, and afterwards a lady of my parents' generation told me how nice it was to hear a young person speak so clearly, not like so many people my age. I didn't resent that, even though it's a lot like "You speak very well for someone your age."

    Peter Taylor: Me defiendo probably isn't too big an exaggeration of my ability in Spanish, but I never say it because it's idiomatic and might give my interlocutor the go-ahead to start talking too fast for me to understand.

  58. Victor Mair said,

    May 21, 2018 @ 8:45 pm

    From Zeyao Wu:

    This reminds me of a conversation with Nikita [VHM: A graduate school classmate of Zeyao. Nikita's mother tongue is Russian, but he has virtually native fluency in Mandarin, and close to that in English]. When I first met with Nikita, he asked my name, and I said, "Wú Zéyáo 吴泽瑶". He asked me what are the characters, and I answered, "Kǒu tiān, Wú 口天, 吴, Máo Zédōng de zé 毛泽东的泽, wáng zì páng de yáo 王字旁的瑶." He corrected me on the part where I said "wáng zì páng de yáo 王字旁的瑶" by saying, "It is not 'wáng' zì páng '王'字旁; it is 'yù' zì páng '玉'字旁". I realized that being a native speaker does not mean that my Chinese is perfect. Before this, I always had an illusion that being a native Chinese speaker meant that I could speak better Chinese than non-native speakers, but I was wrong.

    From then on, I realized that being a native speaker does not mean anything really special. As a native speaker, I can speak Chinese fast and fluently, but it does not mean that "my Chinese is extremely good." I think this may help native speakers feel better when they hear compliments from foreigners.

  59. Bathrobe said,

    May 21, 2018 @ 8:56 pm

    Yes, it's 玉字旁 (yùzìpáng), but in China today almost everyone seems to call it 王字旁 (wángzìpáng). It's fine to be pedantic about it but it's not going to change anything.

  60. Ricardo said,

    May 22, 2018 @ 1:10 am

    I used to be very touchy about being praised for my ability to use chopsticks and my chinese language skill. But once I was genuinely confident in the language, I knew my own level well enough not be affected by put-downs disguised as compliments (as well as their opposite, heart-felt criticism that indicate you have a game worth raising).

    While such flattery is patronising I don't think it rises to level of an insult since the intent is absent. It's more like the kind of polite flubdub one comes out with when one is at loss of what to say: 'Your child is so smart/cute/tall/strong' etc.

    Something nobody here has poiinted out is that, in China, at least, you can often judge how sincere a relationship is by how frank people are about your Chinese. Things I've heard from friends of long-standing: 'HSK 6 is not really impressive. It doesn't even reach the level of a high school student here.' 'To me you're really only semi-literate.' 'Early in the morning or when you are angry it's as if you're chinese drops several levels' and so on.

  61. Eamon Drumm said,

    May 22, 2018 @ 4:32 am

    As a near-fluent non-native speaker of French (American, living in France for eight years and lots of study before that), I always respond to the "You speak French really well!" compliment from native speakers with one of two things, depending on my mood: "Je sais." or "Toi/vous aussi!" Usually elicits a surprised laugh (and some reflection after the fact, I would like to think).

  62. Paul Howard said,

    May 22, 2018 @ 2:14 pm

    My mother and her two brothers were raised bilingual in the USA by my French grandmother. My uncle Denis ended up in Paris as a reporter for the International Herald Tribune. He would hear both "You speak French awfully well for an American" and "You speak English awfully well for a Frenchman." I think it just amused him.

  63. Ron said,

    May 22, 2018 @ 4:56 pm

    I'm an American with decent French who spends a few weeks a year in France. Strangers never compliment my French because, well, it's a sin to lie. Acquaintances sometimes do, with a subtext of "not bad for someone who doesn't spend much time here." Only close friends actually correct me, and I wish they would do it more often.

  64. Nicki said,

    May 25, 2018 @ 6:24 am

    I am often complimented on my Chinese, and I generally reply with a grin and a "so is yours!" There is often a startled laugh, and when they invariably answer that they are Chinese, I tell them they don't look Chinese. Of course they want to know what they do look like. I pretend to size them up carefully, and then declare that they must be from… Mars! This usually gets a good laugh and cuts away any tension from the situation. I haven't had anyone take offense at this joke yet, and it keeps me from taking any, either.

  65. Jason M said,

    May 25, 2018 @ 6:58 am

    How about the case of my poor wife? Born and reared in childhood in the core of Hindi country to a Telugu family. First English at age 8 but surrounded by international speakers of English as lingua franca until a stint in Ohio from 15-17. A gig in Sweden somewhere in there, then college and masters in Swedish. She gets: "Your Hindi is so good for a Southie." "Your Swedish is so good for an Indian/American." "Your English is so good for a foreigner." "Your Telugu is so good for a Northener/American." She has had the experience of calling elderly Swedes to meet them later (eg to buy a used bike) and have them take her for a Swede on the phone, then not be able to understand her at all in person when they hear Swedish coming from someone looking like her. She has no language she can speak without someone thinking it is her second language and "complimenting" her.

    As for me, I have had short conversations in French here in the States wherein some relatively young and naive French person has asked me where in France I was from, which have been among the best compliments I have ever received. My Chinese is bad enough that, as long as it's not based on my uttering a single "ni hao", I take any sign of understanding or appreciation of my endeavor as a compliment, but I have had the experience of not being understood by older Chinese because of how I look, not how I sound, as I have been speaking limited but reasonably tonally articulated Mandarin for years and having people understand me here in the States, in Singapore, and in China, so I don't think (also the blank, confused look on their face the whole time) it's because I ave suddenly become incomprehensible.

    If I were to be offended, it would be for the cultural assumptions: the constant "oh, you eat hot, spicy food" in India; the "oh you eat well with chopsticks" in China/Japan. I have been doing both all of my life, so it is embarrassing to be complimented on them, like, as someone said above, being complimented on walking. Maybe I am not offended, now that I think about it, just feel awkward accepting the "compliment".

  66. Chris Waigl said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 12:24 am

    A friend of mine is Korean-American, born and raised in the US, with a doctorate in anthropology. She doesn't even speak Korean. She has been complimented on her English – which isn't even "seeing the foreigner in her", but just racism.

    My case is more complicated. I know a lot about English, and mostly play with the native speakers when it comes to writing and creative language use. But I have a German accent, overlaid by a weird and non-native mix of BrE and AmE. So I'm clearly foreign in a recognizable sense. But still, sometimes I can't even make a pun without a native speaker "explaining" (not always correctly) my own pun to me. I clamp down on my feelings and usually stay polite, but internally I'm incensed, I have to admit.

  67. Rose Eneri said,

    May 30, 2018 @ 9:09 am

    I would like to make a suggestion for a reply. When a person says your (insert language) is good, say, "Thank you, so is yours."

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