Please Don’t Praise My English

Just another day at Waseda University, I thought, typing away on my laptop in the few free moments before the next lecture was due to begin. 

Or so I thought. 

Several seats behind me, a male classmate introduced himself to a girl and they exchanged a few friendly words, sharing a laugh or two. At the end of the interaction, he looked her over and passed his judgment: “Your English is actually pretty good!”

 

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Hearing his comment from my seat nearby, I cringed. Luckily, nobody caught it. As for the girl, she giggled a bit uncomfortably (or so I felt) but accepted the compliment. Everyone moved on.

Except, of course, for me. 

The small encounter made me squirm for a long time afterward and I struggled to articulate the reasons as to why I felt that way. Looking for a revelation, I shared the experience on social media and was surprised and gratified to receive messages from multiple people who had undergone a similar ordeal and conveyed their shared unhappiness at suddenly having their English complimented by a complete stranger.

Thinking of the numerous instances when such a thing happened to me (quite common, considering that I’m Indian and currently living abroad), I decided to reflect on why I had such a strong aversion to what was ultimately a harmless gesture.

Here are five reasons why:

1. The Power Gap

Praising someone’s English immediately changes the dynamic of the entire conversation. What started out as a casual interaction between two equals is suddenly unleveled as a clear superior emerges from the encounter: the person deigning to compliment the other’s English. At best, it turns the dialogue into a teacher-student style of communication and at worst, can be a form of intimidation or even condescension. Not to mention, it’s a rude shock for the person being complimented to realize that while they were actively listening and preparing themselves to respond to their partner, they were in reality being silently assessed and judged by the other. 

2. Assuming Someone’s Background

Here’s possibly the worst of them all: “Your English is really good for someone from (insert country)!” 

In the globalized, 21st century world where intermarriage, expatriates, foreign immigrants and third culture individuals are rising in number, it’s ignorant to assume a person’s English speaking ability from their appearance. It can be embarrassing if not incredibly invalidating for someone who was born and raised in an English-speaking country to be told that their English is ‘good’ and therein have their main mode of communication reduced to little more than a second language that they’re still not fully in control of. Meeting someone of a different nationality and/or race and being pleasantly surprised when they speak fluent English in a so-called standard accent is its own form of internal racism and such a perception says more about the speaker's limited life experience than that of the person being complimented. 

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3. A Narrow-Minded Perspective

In reality, many people complimenting the English of others display their own ignorance and lack of knowledge regarding modern history. As a result of extended colonization and forced assimilation, many people across the world speak the languages of their former oppressors and have been doing so for many generations. Take for example, the nationals of former British colonies (India, Singapore, etc.) speaking English and nationals of former French colonies (Haiti, Congo, etc.) capable of French alongside their local languages. Complimenting someone’s English just because they are a person of color brings the speaker and listener dangerously close to the colonizer-colonized dynamic. Even when this isn’t the intention, there is a good chance of accidentally ‘complimenting’ someone who is a third or even fourth-generation speaker of English (as is my case) while their own family only emigrated to an English speaking country one or two generations ago. 

4. The Pure Arrogance

This is a simple one. What qualifies you to compliment another person’s English? Race, nationality and ethnicity are not achievable credits that allow one the automatic right to praise others, nor do they guarantee the proficiency of said individual's own English. Even if the individual offering praise holds a Ph.D in English Literature or is a certified Linguistics expert, there isn’t a pressing need to pass judgment on another person’s English if the context doesn’t call for it. It can be anything from awkward to downright humiliating to be singled out and have one’s English praised in a patronizing tone during something as irrelevant as a birthday party or while giving directions to the toilet (yes, this has happened to me). 

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5. Message vs Medium

By complimenting someone’s English, the topic of the conversation is subverted. Instead of focusing on what was being said, one of the speakers is now uncomfortably aware of how they said it. This is used in debates to distract someone from their main argument by making them hyper-sensitive to their manner of speech instead of its contents and in short, is an extremely juvenile device used in order to gain an unfair advantage in a dialogue. 

End of rant.

So, what is one to do in response? you may ask. I would love to pull out my TOEFL score (115 out of 120) and toss it in the face of everyone who’s ever complimented my English, or perhaps explain, I don’t want this thoughtless, meaningless compliment because it simply doesn’t apply to me or my lived experiences, but sometimes the only option is to grudgingly accept the backhanded compliment. 

Unless the speaker and listener are in a classroom setting and one has explicitly requested the latter to assess their linguistic proficiency, I believe there is almost no reason for a stranger to comment on another person’s English. If someone expresses doubt or dissatisfaction regarding their language ability, it’s of course acceptable to encourage them with a few kind words or even a compliment, but dragging someone’s English ability into the spotlight for the sake of bestowing an overdone compliment they might not even want or need is just poor etiquette. 

My conclusion? The next time someone unknowingly hits me with a ‘hey, your English is actually good!’ I’m going to be ready.

“Why, thank you,” I’ll say, “yours is passable as well.”

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