Is it insulting to compliment an educated non-native speaker's English?
April 23, 2008 8:32 PM   Subscribe

Is it insulting to compliment an educated non-native speaker's English?

I sometimes correspond with people overseas who are non-native speakers of English. I am often impressed with how well they speak and write English and have wanted to compliment them but wasn't sure if they'd see it as a compliment or an insult.

Most of them are in Central and Southern Europe, but some are in Asia. All of them have at least the equivalent of a bachelor's degree, some work in government energy departments and most of the rest are in staff research positions at universities.
posted by amfea to Human Relations (44 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Do not belabor the compliments, but a direct compliment - "Your English is impeccable - better than many native speakers!" is thrilling to every non-native-speaker I've ever met.
posted by notsnot at 8:41 PM on April 23, 2008


It can definitely be construed as somewhat insulting. I grew up in India but English is my first language. It's the language we spoke around the house and the one I spoke most often with my friends. There's no other language that I speak better. I'm never sure how to react when people compliment me on my English. It feels like being complimented on walking properly. I usually don't want to go into a whole family history of why we speak English primarily so I just say thanks and move on. But please, make sure that the person you want to compliment speaks English only as a second or third language before you compliment them. This is not true for many people I know from India, for example.
posted by peacheater at 8:43 PM on April 23, 2008 [6 favorites]


I would generally avoid complimenting the English of Germanic-speaking Europeans (Germans, Dutch, Scandinavians) and Indian or Pakistani Asians. Everyone else would usually be quite happy to hear it, I think, although if the person has near-native English I would avoid commenting on it altogether.
posted by pravit at 8:48 PM on April 23, 2008


peacheater is right on the money. in my experience people from the philippines, singapore or hong kong, where english is an official language because of colonial legacies, taught in all schools and used in many homes, would be insulted too. if you really feel the need to say something, consider history before you speak, but honestly i think the best compliment is saying nothing at all; the only people who genuinely feel complimented when you notice their language skills are the ones who feel like they still have a lot of room to improve.
posted by lia at 8:54 PM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Oh yea, definitely Singaporeans. The HKers I've met generally don't have the best English, but many of them do get degrees from English-speaking countries. I totally agree though; I think complimenting someone's language abilities just reminds them that they're still noticeably non-native.
posted by pravit at 8:59 PM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


It all depends. Like the above comments state, if English is someone's first language, then it can be--not offensive, but at least awkward. I knew an Indian guy who spoke fluent English with an Indian accent, but he said he spoke English better than his dialect of Hindi, having spent so much time in English-only schools. On the other hand, a native of Japan who speaks very fluent English probably did so only after a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in learning it, and will likely always be under confident about it. So a compliment to that Japanese person would be very welcome. You just need to know someone's story a bit more, that's all.
posted by zardoz at 9:02 PM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


It'd be a good compliment only if someone asked if you had trouble understanding them, or was in some other way directly interested in what you thought about their English.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 9:06 PM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


After spending years studying a second language, I would be incredibly happy to hear that my years of hard work paid off.

I second Pavit's comment.
posted by HotPatatta at 9:09 PM on April 23, 2008


The question makes it sound like you KNOW English is their second language. If you are assuming that, maybe instead of a compliment, a question. "I was curious if English is your first language, you speak it so wonderfully". If you do know it is a second language, then I don't see that it would be that offensive, if they were to take offense at all.

If it were me I would just ask them what you asked us. Tell them you don't want to be insulting, but that you are impressed by their skill and (if true) that it is better than some native speakers, and you wanted to compliment them on it. I think that would prevent anyone from thinking you are being condescending.
posted by jesirose at 9:15 PM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


I agree with peacheater. Same story (grew up in India speaking English etc etc), I feel very weird when people compliment me on my (first language) English.
posted by dhruva at 9:19 PM on April 23, 2008


English is technically my second language. But I grew up in the States, so my spoken English sounds completely American. I also have a BA in English Lit from a Canadian university, for what it's worth, which means that I can also write fairly well. All of my life I've been complimented on my good English, and all of my life I've thought, "Yes, I know that." I know it sounds pretentious, but what else can I say? At first I learned English because I had to. But now, even though I don't have to speak it anymore, I still work with it because I've always loved loved loved the language. I worked really hard to get my English skills to the level where I am now and I know it's pretty good.

But I agree with what lia said about feeling like having a lot of room to improve; I keep coming back to MetaFilter because there are so many people here, native speakers or not, whose ways with words are just SO much better than I am to the point where I know I'll never be able to achieve that kind of level. In that sense, I know that my English isn't all that good, and that my studying it will never end.

My answer to your question, which is a really interesting one and I'm glad you asked it, is, just don't say anything. If you do, I'll thank you, and I won't be offended or anything, but I'll be thinking what I wrote above. Likewise, I try not to say, "Your Japanese is really good." to a non-Japanese person now because I just don't know what that person's background might be. Once I get to know them, I might tell them what I think, but otherwise I just don't mention it.
posted by misozaki at 9:23 PM on April 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


Actually, upon rereading lia's comment, I think I might have misinterpreted it, but oh well.
posted by misozaki at 9:27 PM on April 23, 2008


I sometimes correspond with people overseas who are non-native speakers of English.

Please define non-native speakers. Please also explain how you know these people are non-native speakers.
posted by randomstriker at 9:32 PM on April 23, 2008


It's not insulting at all. I love it when someone compliments my English.
posted by clearlydemon at 9:48 PM on April 23, 2008


If you were worried about insulting someone, you might ask first what languages they grew up speaking. If they are recent English-speakers, you could compliment them, but either way you will have something interesting to talk about.
posted by unknowncommand at 9:57 PM on April 23, 2008


Mr Taff is Tibetan and went to school in India. He is appalled and feels quite patronised when people comment on his english. He would never tell them though. He's polite like that.

BUT......Another dear friend is Austrian, and her husband is always making issues about her way of speaking so she has started frequenting english classes. Her english is very good, just a bit Austrian-ish. (e.g her facebook status was once, "I am naked after a heavy work out at Balmoral". Obviously I had to leave it a day before I suggested the word she was looking for was "knackered"... just for the giggles. And yes, she found it equally hilarious when I told her.)

We discussed this very thing yesterday and she was delighted to hear that I thought her language skills were so good. But she was the one who brought it up and I just told her her husband was a moron. She speaks mandarin fluently so it was in a general language skills context. Otherwise I would never have ever, ever, ever commented. Ever.
posted by taff at 10:47 PM on April 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


I live in a non-English speaking country, but I try not to comment on people's English. I don't know what their story is. The only time I break this rule is with cab drivers or street vendors who actually have terrible English but are trying to show off. I generally reply to them in their language, "Oh your English is good."

And, as someone who hears daily "Oh, your Armenian is so good" when in fact it is only okay, and I am well aware of this fact, it does get rate annoying.
posted by k8t at 12:10 AM on April 24, 2008


I think it's only appropriate if you know the person has been working on his or her english skills. Otherwise it comes across as pretty patronizing.
posted by wemayfreeze at 12:26 AM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Personally I wouldn't mind (I'm Norwegian), but maybe other people would. Kids who are learning English often seem like they're fishing for compliments, though, so go ahead.
posted by Harald74 at 12:28 AM on April 24, 2008


English is my second language, but it's not obvious. When I tell people, I always get compliments, and it's pretty annoying. I don't feel complimented at all. (In other words, seconding misozaki.)
posted by nasreddin at 2:21 AM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Please don't tell Central Europeans that their English is better than that of native speakers. It almost never true other than in the sense of "You really learned that arbitrary and altered subset which the Dutch school system considers good English", and many will take the hyperbolic US-style friendly compliment as an accurate assessment, given extra weight by coming from a native speaker, which is an unintentionally cruel joke on any native speakers who may someday have to edit them or otherwise improve the quality of their English for a native-English-speaking audience.

I can't tell you how much very funny published Germlish and Dutchlish (OK, I just made up that second term) I've seen from people who were convinced their English was better-than-native and that they didn't need to run it past anyone first, and how many arguments I've had with non-native English speakers about whether I was right that a particular piece of vocabulary existed/was used in such-and-such a way, because they had never heard of it (!).

If you have any question about how it would be received, why not just give them the kind of compliment you would give a good native English writer? For instance, "I always look forward to reading your emails; when I read your descriptions I feel like I'm there." The language compliment is implied but not belabored.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 2:31 AM on April 24, 2008


I wouldn't do it. You don't know their history. I have a few friends who are born and raised in the States but have Mexican heritage and have spoken English their entire lives - they get these compliments from well meaning people and it doesn't come off well at all. Like others have said up thread, my friends are polite, say thank you, but are a little offended by the assumptions.
posted by dog food sugar at 3:11 AM on April 24, 2008


I say only offer up the praise after knowing for sure (preferably from them volunteering the information) that they haven't been speaking English for very long.

At times, even those who say English is their second language ... they could have picked it up at ten, and be aged forty today. That would be insulting.

And my personal anecdote - I lived and went to school abroad for many years in Asia. When I offer up the information, I'm immediately accosted with "Really? Oh, wow, your English is so good!" Ha, English is my first language. I prefer it when they say, "But English is your first language, right?" Yes. And even if it wasn't my second language, I would be so pleased - Really? Is my English really that good? Thanks!

I say try not to ask about English being a second language. Instead say something about them living or growing up in Foreign Country X, "... but English is your first language, isn't it?" And if the answer is no: "It isn't? I could've sworn..."
posted by Xere at 3:11 AM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


@peacheater

I have heard people from India whom have said that they were native English speakers and spoke English at home. They even went on to say how they were taught in English in their classes and at university, but what came out of their mouth was not English. They kept on getting frustrated that people couldn't understand them, until they went to classes and learned to speak English again, this time without the accent, and the hinglish words.

(Note not saying that you don't speak impeccable English, but I do know some people who were very happy to hear that their English was improving, again that was from people who knew they were seeking improvement)
posted by koolkat at 3:15 AM on April 24, 2008


Many Europeans I've mentioned this to seem almost bemused, as if I've just complemented their shoe lace tying.
posted by oxford blue at 3:26 AM on April 24, 2008


I've heard my wife, who tends to be pretty culturally sensitive, offer praise, but usually only after someone makes a self-deprecating assessment of their own english ability. In other words she doesn't bring it up first.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 3:54 AM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


koolkat, Indian English-as-a-first-language is native English. That there are people who can't follow their dialect no more makes it "not English" than it makes Scottish or Alabaman English "not English".
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 4:06 AM on April 24, 2008 [3 favorites]


Personally? I wouldn't do it. I know too many people who would appear to fall into this category, but in reality have been speaking english their whole lives. Intended or not, it can come off as pretty patronizing then to be complimented on being able to speak, pretty much.

If it's much more context specific (like, they've been talking about having only very recently picked up on the language) then that certainly allows room for compliments, but otherwise, not really.
posted by liquorice at 4:38 AM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


If they're very educated and extremely fluent, then yeah, it's iffy.

I'll reassure someone if their English is honestly not all that expert and they need the confidence, though; I have a friend who gets frustrated at not being able to get his point across or think of the right words to say to me and I'll remind him that I can generally understand what he's getting at and if either of us gets confused we can always just try saying it a different way. I don't directly compliment his English anymore, though, because he knows it's not true.

"Your English is so good!"

"No, it's not."
posted by Juliet Banana at 5:08 AM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Upon reflection, I would like to qualify my statement.

I can imagine saying this to someone in context. If, in the course of ordinary conversation, someone explicitly mentioned that English was a recently acquired language, within 2-3 years maybe, I would feel okay with saying something. I think that learning languages is difficult and admirable.

Also, if someone apologized or worried aloud about their English, I would feel fine about complimenting them (as others in the this thread have already mentioned).
posted by unknowncommand at 5:17 AM on April 24, 2008


Rather than compliment their skill with your native language, compliment their skill in being bi/multi-lingual:
"I'm impressed that you speak [x] different languages so well!"

And really, that is the part that is impressing you.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:29 AM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


@koolkat
I have heard people from India whom have said that they were native English speakers and spoke English at home. They even went on to say how they were taught in English in their classes and at university, but what came out of their mouth was not English. They kept on getting frustrated that people couldn't understand them, until they went to classes and learned to speak English again, this time without the accent, and the hinglish words.
Wow, who died and made you the authority on English? How come you get to decide what's English and what's not? A few points:
1. An accent is just a different way of pronouncing words. It doesn't make the language more or less English.
2. Hinglish words should be thought of as slang. Many, many English words originated as Hinglish, for example, dekko, seersucker and mongoose. It's just the natural process by which foreign words get incorporated into languages. What, it's only ok when the British do it?
3. The question asked whether people might find the question insulting. I said yes, some people might including me and other Indian friends. Does that mean that there are no Indian people who might be pleased by such a compliment? Of course not. But there's no a priori way to find this out without knowing a lot more about that person's background. So my advice was to find out more about this before making any assumptions and complimenting them.
4. To get an idea of how patronizing this attitude is read early 20th century books written by British authors that describe Americans. Their English is usually mentioned with some comment about "Americanisms" and strange accent.
posted by peacheater at 5:41 AM on April 24, 2008 [3 favorites]


From my personal perspective, the best way to compliment someone on their language ability is to 1) not to belabor the point or say it in a condecending tone and 2) to be willing to converse in that language with the person. Nothing irks my wife more on business trips than a Chinese business contact that compliments her Chinese (which is fantastic) and then continues to try and speak in horrible, broken English or insists on speaking through a translator (who often become very embarrased by the situation).
posted by Pollomacho at 5:46 AM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


I taught ESL for a bit. I agree with all the people who suggest that if someone expresses doubt about their ability, then that definitely opens the door to a compliment. I think my students valued compliments during the learning process (as I did when I was learning a second language myself.) It's nice to have reassurance.

But we were specifically working together in a language-learning context, which does not sound like your situation at all. If a compliment just comes out of nowhere, then I think it can be condescending. It's assuming English is their second language, it signals that they still appear to be ESL speakers, and all the other good reasons mentioned above.

When I meet people who are fluent English speakers but mention that English is not their first language, I might say something like "Wow, I really wish I was multilingual like that, it's a great skill to have". Because, you know, I am genuinely envious. I wonder if people growing up in the U.S., with a very monolingual educational system (or at least when I was K-12), end up with language envy?
posted by lillygog at 6:28 AM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


The only time I compliment someone on their English is when I get the statement "I'm sorry that my English isn't very good." I respond with "I guarantee your English is much better than my [insert other language]. We're getting along just fine."
posted by owtytrof at 6:33 AM on April 24, 2008 [3 favorites]


I lived in Germany for awhile and always liked when someone complimented my German, especially if they knew me and heard real improvement. I think it would work the same for non-native English speakers.

If you don't know someone well, their status with the language etc, then it might be best to not comment.
posted by aerotive at 8:31 AM on April 24, 2008


I'm a South-Asian living in US and when someone compliments me on my English I take it as a compliment, not an insult.
posted by WizKid at 8:45 AM on April 24, 2008


I think complimenting an (apparently) non-native English speaker on their English is not a wise idea. First of all, as others have noted, there are plenty of places like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Nigeria where people look and sound "foreign" (ie, not-white, heavy accent) but actually speak English as a first language. So your compliment is actually an insult, with a tinge of racism.

Second, praising a non-native speaker's command of English is a backhanded compliment at best. To the person you're praising, it seems as though you are really listening to what they are actually saying, and are still hung up on their foreigness. So it could seem as though their English is good, but not good enough to pass for the real thing.

Or they could also think you are an idiot. When someone praises me on my Japanese, it's a 50/50 chance whether or not there will be much to say to that person going forward.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:44 AM on April 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


Personally? I wouldn't do it. I know too many people who would appear to fall into this category, but in reality have been speaking english their whole lives. Intended or not, it can come off as pretty patronizing then to be complimented on being able to speak, pretty much.

Exactly. One needs to for sure that they're not complementing a native speaker, which is often pretty difficult. I'm at a school where a lot of people who appear to be of my ethnicity are international students whose English either isn't fluent or is heavily accented. I was raised in Canada and spoke typical Southwestern Ontario (rather than African/Caribbean vernacular) English at home. Every now and then I get a comment about how good my English is or about how "unusual" it is that my accent isn't foreign-sounding. I understand where people are coming from when they make those comments, but it really does piss me off to no end.
posted by thisjax at 10:27 AM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


s/for/be
posted by thisjax at 10:28 AM on April 24, 2008


Lots of projection going on in here; people seem to assume that their personal reaction holds for everyone everywhere. I love it when people compliment my Spanish, French, or whatever; I've complimented other people's English and never seen any signs of awkwardness in the reaction—people seem as pleased as I am when the tables are turned. Learning a foreign language isn't easy, and it's nice to get positive feedback. On the other hand, I wouldn't say something like that to a South Asian or other person for whom English is likely to be a first language. In short, there is no one answer; it all depends on the situation and the person.

When someone praises me on my Japanese, it's a 50/50 chance whether or not there will be much to say to that person going forward.

I have no idea what this means. Is your Japanese terrible?
posted by languagehat at 10:35 AM on April 24, 2008


When someone praises me on my Japanese, it's a 50/50 chance whether or not there will be much to say to that person going forward.

I have no idea what this means. Is your Japanese terrible?


My spoken Japanese has been professional (advanced, but not superior, since many native speakers achieve superior level) level, but has deteriorated somewhat since returning to Canada several years ago.

So, assuming someone complimented me on my Japanese when my Japanese was good enough to pass off as professional, I wasn't always sure which way the relationship would go. I mostly wanted to interact with people on a human level, which is quite normal in Japan, rather than as "Japanese & Foreigner."

People who complimented me on my Japanese were usually making a point about my foreignness, which is why there was a 50/50 chance whether or not it would be useful to continue the conversation.

However, it should be noted that 99% of the time, the issue of foreignness never came up.

Anyway, for longterm foreign residents of the US or Canada or wherever, who have made the effort to learn and speak educated English, I would assume that complimenting them about their language ability would be mildly irritating, as it was in my case. It's not a dealbreaker, but it can be sort of an idiotic thing to do.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:08 PM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Otherwise it comes across as pretty patronizing.

Yes, don't do it. A back-door way to compliment someone's good English is simply to ask about their family history - "Are you a native speaker?"

As a foreigner I was always unimpressed with patronising "Oh, your Polish is so good!" comments when I knew it wasn't. It was when people would ask "Excuse me, but are you a foreigner?" that I knew it was good.
posted by Meatbomb at 12:46 AM on April 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


People who complimented me on my Japanese were usually making a point about my foreignness, which is why there was a 50/50 chance whether or not it would be useful to continue the conversation.

Oh, do I hear you on that one. I know I speak terribly (also Japanese), and if you compliment me, frankly, I start wondering how much I can trust other nice things you might say (even if I know you!). I feel it's much more helpful and flattering to be treated as a normal human being having a normal interaction and then move on.

FWIW, I've gotten this treatment a lot regarding Vietnamese, also, but very rarely in Europe or South America.
posted by whatzit at 4:28 AM on April 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


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