Reflecting on Compliments in a Multicultural World

When I receive a compliment for speaking English well, I graciously respond with, “Thank you. Your command over English is equally impressive.”

Sign posted in the India and Nepal section of Animal Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida

Living in New York City, a melting pot of cultures, I frequently find myself navigating linguistic differences and nuances in communication. As an immigrant who learned both Hindi and English as my co-first languages, I appreciate the challenges of adapting to new cultural contexts and dialects. I work to be understanding when others make well-intentioned comments that reveal unconscious biases or misconceptions.

The other day, for instance, someone yet again told me, “You speak English very well.” Though meant as a compliment, it gave me pause. I smiled and replied, “Thank you. You speak English very well too.

Why did I respond this way? A few reasons.

First, when I meet someone who is not of Indian-origin, yet speaks Hindi or Urdu fluently, I am impressed and am likely to compliment them about it. Like most other humans, I too make assumptions about people based on their visual appearance.

Second, while kindly meant, such compliments can imply an “us” versus “them” mentality that perpetuates the stereotype that those from other cultures or with accents are somehow less proficient in English. Yet English ability varies widely for native speakers too.

Third, for many, English is a second, third or fourth language, and in my case a co-first-language. Mastering multiple languages deserves recognition, not differentiation.

Fourth, mirroring the compliment aimed to convey that English proficiency, like any language skill, can be achieved by anyone. It is not exclusive to any group.

Living globally means accepting that for some, English is a first language, for others, second, third or fourth. This mix enriches our conversations. When complimenting another’s English, acknowledge their effort to learn while challenging perceptions of what it means to “speak well.”

Let’s use language to build connections, foster understanding, and celebrate our diversity. Language expresses identity, carries culture, and enables global links. As an immigrant and parent to my American son who has heritages from both India and Ireland, I feel firsthand the power of words to unite and empower.




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