I get complimented on my English on a regular basis. Why is that an issue? And why is that not a compliment? Because I grew up in Southern California. So, why do people continue to “compliment” me on my ability to speak English? I think it is because I wear a “racial uniform”. I look like my parents who are Asian Indian and for a lot of people that means that I am not really “American” and must be a “foreigner”. Therefore, they do not expect me to speak English well. They are trying to pay me a compliment but the underlying message is: “You look different so I do not really expect you to speak English well. Or speak without an accent”. So, be careful before you “compliment” someone on their ability to speak English…just because someone looks “ethnic” does not mean that English is not their native language.
And if you are on the receiving end of such a “compliment”, what do you say? If you want it to be a teachable moment, you can respond very nicely and compliment them back! I’ve done this a number of times and it does make people think about what they are saying. Most people do not intend to be offensive and they are simply not aware of the underlying message they are also delivering.
Another thing not to say: “Wow, you don’t have an accent!” Why should I have an accent? I’ve been speaking English since I was old enough to talk! In fact, I have an American accent when I speak Hindi, a language I speak fluently. And by the way, I don’t hear my American accent! I think I sound just like anyone else speaking fluent Hindi. But I don’t. I sound like an American speaking fluent Hindi. So, it is interesting that people are amazed that I don’t have an Indian accent and yet, I have an American accent.