[1000 words + 1]

“You Speak Good English” and why I should take it as a compliment.

Nope. Not about pictures.

Sometime this week someone paid me this “compliment” in the middle of a conversation. I understand her intentions fully and she really meant it as a good thing, like something that would lead up to other good things as concerns my trying to learn other languages. So she isn’t at fault for anything. At the same time, immediately she said it I could hardly wait for her to get to a pause so that I could clue her in.

No, I don’t remember when I heard English for the first time.

We speak English in Kenya. No, not as a second language. Many people are bilingual (and tri-lingual, etc) and if they aren’t, it’s because they speak too much English.

Yes, she hit a raw nerve. There are so many times I’ve heard:

How long have you been here? One year? Two/Three? Wow! Your English is so good!

To be fair, it doesn’t always come from the picture of ignorance that is the butt of all manner of ignorance jokes outside of US borders. That previous quote, is verbatim from a conversation with a Latino/Hispanic man. (How ignorant of me to not find out exactly what country he’s from.)

I was watching the Hague proceedings this morning. There were all manner of accents flying around. The president of the tribunal, I guess, she had what may have been a French accent. One of the judges or the VP’s, he’s German. One lawyer’s American, another one – British. They are relevant because while I was watching, I thought, “Uh, she has good English” and “Oh, his English is not so good.”

How do we judge “good” English? Is it vocabulary? Diction? Fluency? Is my English “good” when I use fifteen-letter words in place of five-letter words? Is my English “good” if I don’t roll my R’s? Is my English “good” when, even though it has one accent or another, it’s my first language? Is it fair to judge the German judge (ha!) by his fluency and diction when his vocabulary is bigger than I can imagine?

I once joined a Facebook group, “I judge you when you use poor grammar,” because I do. But my feelings toward the group changed a little bit when I learned that because I have an unfamiliar accent, people are inclined to immediately shut out what I am saying. It sucks when you can see it in their eyes, too. Like a light just went out and there’s no one home anymore. It’s as though, by virtue of having an accent, no one waits to find out if my grammar is on point – it was drummed into me for 12+ years of school. Yes, it is. – and more importantly, they immediately assume that they will not understand me. Or I’m just about to ask for some thing that’s so culture-specific, they are sure they don’t have it at their store or whatever. Basically, I am judged – and dismissed – by my accent. Which I won’t even get into because I KNOW I don’t have an accent!!

The point. Why I should take it as a compliment. In China, in Japan, in France, in Germany, in Spain, in Mali, in Senegal, in Brazil, in Peru, and all manner of non-Anglophone countries on the globe, the economy, the school system, life, everything – or most everything – runs without the need for English. While in Kenya, that you don’t speak English means that you didn’t go to school – because that’s the language of instruction – and hints at you being illiterate, it is hardly the case in any of the other countries I mentioned before. So when someone says, “Oh. You’re English is so good!” it doesn’t always mean, “Oh, you are not as dumb as I thought!” Though it might. It’s more a recognition of “Oh, look at you! You have such a good grasp of this language for which I assume, aside from speaking with me right now and your school work, you have no use.” Which has its own world of implications, LOL.

Next time someone tells me I speak good English, I’ll take it as a compliment because they imagine – with some valid, although inapplicable, evidence – that up until 3 years ago, I had no use for the language. And consequently, they imply that I can get by (FULLY) on (Ki)Swahili or Luo. They assume that I could sit down and comfortably read a book in (Ki)Swahili, or that my mum and I converse in Luo, or that at a funeral, I don’t have a 9-year old translating what the preacher is saying. All good things of which English has kinda gotten in the way. Yes, next time someone tells me my English is good, I’ll smile before I add:

I wish I could say the same for my mother tongue other languages.

This entry was published on September 3, 2011 at 3:55 pm. It’s filed under Chatter, Issues, This Is Africa, T.I.A. and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

One thought on ““You Speak Good English” and why I should take it as a compliment.

  1. Well said…….I have this Australian friend, he’s kenyan and one day this Dutch guy comes and says “How did you learn to speak english so fast?” It’s so hilarious yet offensive.

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