Stop Complimenting my English, Please

Image credit: CDD20

By Anna Thyregod Wilcks

When people realise that I’m not from the UK, they sometimes compliment my accent, my vocabulary, my grammar, my ability to pass, essentially, as not a foreigner. It took me a while to figure out what feelings comments like “Your English is so good!” or “But you hardly have an accent?” invoked in me, but I later figured out that they weren’t pleasant ones.

Yes, I put a lot of work into learning this language, and I’m proud of how far I’ve come. However, comments about someone’s language abilities often come with patronising connotations that can be offensive. Languages and accents can be incredibly personal, and so you should  always be careful when commenting on them. My main issue, as a foreigner in the UK with a different native language, is that compliments about my English seem to be directed towards my ability to ‘fit in’ and not flaunt my ‘foreignness’ about. 

I’m more than just my language abilities, and wanting to be able to speak English fluently does not equate to me wanting to be English. Curiously enough, these kinds of comments also make me uncomfortably aware of my limitation to fully belong. If my English is so great, why are you still commenting on it? These comments subvert the conversation which becomes about how I say things as a foreigner, and not what I’m saying as an equal. 

Ironically, one of the bad habits I’ve acquired during my time as a foreigner in the UK is excusing my accent. It has become an involuntary reflex for me to say, “Sorry, it’s my accent” whenever someone doesn’t seem to understand what I’m saying. Even in cases where I know it’s not an issue of accent, but of wearing a mask or not speaking very loudly. It’s an easy way out, a ‘get out of jail’ card that pardons any future mistake or misunderstanding.

In an interview with the Guardian Nigeria, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie argues that “When you live in a country that is often hostile or condescending to foreignness, you just want to adapt and survive and sometimes taking on the accent is one way to do that.” In her 2013 novel, Americanah, the Nigerian protagonist Ifemelu is complimented on her accent by a telemarketer, “Wow. Cool. You sound totally American”. The comment makes Ifemelu feel shameful, “She had won, indeed, but her triumph was full of air. Her fleeting victory had left in its wake a vast, echoing space, because she had taken on, for too long, a pitch of voice and a way of being that was not hers”. Accents are personal, and they signal culture, so when you are complimented on not having an accent, it can feel like being complimented on successfully suppressing your cultural identity and adopting a superior one.

It may seem strange to complain about ‘compliments’, but in a post-Brexit world, I find it necessary. In an overly monolingual country like the UK, many may not understand why complimenting someone’s English would be offensive. When you comment on someone’s language abilities you assume that person’s background. However, it’s crucial to remember that English is not something owned by the white man, but an official language in many places around the world due to colonisation and forced assimilation. It’s not uncommon for people of colour to be complimented on their English when it’s in fact their first language, which is an ignorant, hurtful microaggression. Linguistic racism is real and anglocentric culture is not helping. 

So, next time you feel like commenting on someone’s English, maybe reconsider.

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