You Speak Good English!

After living almost my entire life outside my homeland, I’ve found that English is the only language that I can consider myself to be proficient in. Of course, there is a residual trailing accent if you will, but that surely shouldn’t detract from my mastery over the language. Despite all this, it is always jarring when someone expresses their surprise in terms of what they’d think is a compliment.

I’d just given a speech at an event (can’t mention which one it is, just in case). I tend to proofread my content over and over, hoping that substance matters greater than delivery. After rambling on and on, I’d hoped to escape quietly without much fuss, with perhaps a thumbs up or two. As I slunk away quietly this individual came over to me and said, “Wow! I didn’t know you could speak English so fluently!” I was a bit taken aback – but the person in question was quite senior to me, so I just smiled and shrugged.

Perhaps, I’m misconstruing what I heard. It may have been an innocuous offhand remark and I’m reading a lot more into this incident than I ought to. After all, clearly in this day and age where the world has been reduced to a global village, and with English spoken all over the world, it should come as no surprise that people of other nationalities are as well spoken as the locals.

The implication could be: given your skin color and/or accent, I would have expected you to have bad grammar. In which case, it is legitimate for the person in question to wonder, what other unstated assumptions have you made about my capabilities based on my skin color/accent? Many feel more comfortable writing and doing professional work in English. In this backdrop “Your English is good ” dialogue would be taken as an insult because the speaker assumed  the other person’s English  would be bad / mediocre / half baked. 

Or it was just a compliment and I’m just crazy and need to stop dawdling and get back to work. Huh.



  1. As an English teacher, back in another life, it was my observation that English grammar is much worse among native English speakers than among those who have learned English as a second language, perhaps becoming their first language. One MUST learn grammar in order to learn another language.

  2. I think perhaps this man was just not quite as accomplished in conveying what he meant as you are. I think he meant it as a genuine compliment. At this stage of my life, I’ve learned to take folks at face value. Sounds like your speech was wonderful. Allow yourself to believe this is really what he meant! Judy

  3. That’s funny, because I never seen these checkboxes on any job applications: perfect English, poor English, terrible Spanish, fine Spanish, okay Chinese, good French. Ah! People.

  4. I can relate to this, too, as I have been living in the UK for the past 14 years but am originally from Eastern Europe. I’ll follow your blog now and hope you’ll follow back. 🙂

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