There are many ways to respond to a compliment, but stabbing the flatterer is rarely recommended. Yet that was the impulse I once felt when a colleague commented that my English was “pretty good”. He may have said “really good”, for all I care, because it wasn’t the matter of degree that had me throwing visual daggers. His careless praise was an insult because it implied his English was somehow better than mine – meaning more idiomatic, perhaps, or just more authentic because it was spoken by a Westerner with a white face. The thing was, we were both native speakers of English.
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.
Or do they? (“Is it?” my mother would say.)
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.”
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.”