Probably one of the most CONFUSING things ever written about concerning the finer points of language learning is the question as to whether or not getting complimented on your language skills is a good thing or not.
Those who might not know anything about it would say “well, of course it’s a good thing!” However, several Facebook pages have had blog posts that indicate otherwise. (Don’t worry, I’ll get to my opinion in a moment, and it isn’t a simple one!)
The logic that says “truly good language learners don’t get complimented on their language skills” goes like this: native speakers don’t get complimented on THEIR skills, and so to get compliments from native speakers indicates that something is WRONG.
The truth is, I’ve been complimented on how well I speak English, even by native speakers. By that extension, that means that something is off (according to this line of logic).
However, there are many sides to the compliment factor, including the following which play important roles:
- How commonly spoken is the language by foreigners? (This is especially true for what is the world’s most commonly studied L2 – English. If you’re learning that, don’t expect compliments unless you’re doing a REALLY good job).
- How commonly is the language spoken by foreigners who look like you? (Being a white person such as myself can also work for me in learning a language from, let’s say, East Asia, but it can also work against me if I’m a beginner, as many people in Myanmar expected me to know English or German but Burmese? Not so much).
- How well do you speak it? (The compliment is going to mean something completely different if you began learning the language a few weeks ago vs. if you’ve had several years of experience with it and consider yourself conversationally or professionally fluent. Having someone telling me I speak good Swedish at a party [which I’ve been learning since 2012 and fluent since late 2014 or so] is going to be different than the Burmese taxi driver telling me I speak good Burmese when I can say “I want to get off here” when I began learning a few months ago.) Also tied into this issue is how your sentences flow. Some beginners or even intermediate learners can sound like robots at times (I’ve been guilty of this myself) but if you sound believably like a radio announcer your compliment is more likely to be a good sign.
Compliments serve TWO purposes in a sense. For one, even if you don’t really speak it well, native speakers can tell you this in order to “egg you on” into studying further. (Believe me, native speakers KNOW this, especially with polyglot culture becoming bigger and bigger with each year, and sometimes meeting more and more resistance with each year, too). Another one is to let you know that you’re doing a good job AND that you should keep it up.
Emotionally intelligent people are aware of the fact that people do things that give them good feelings and avoid things that give them bad feelings. To get anyone to continue anything, make them feel good about it. To try to get someone from desist, make someone feel bad about it (again, this ties into the topic of online bullying and language learning that I wrote about in depth last month).
Now, is getting complimented a BAD sign?
In all honesty, no.
It’s just a sign that you have been making some variety of progress and you should keep going. And that the L1 speaker you are speaking to wants to get that across.
It’s also NOT TRUE that native-like speakers never get complimented. Because they do (heck, as I said above, I get told very often that I speak English very well and it’s my mother tongue).
Also remember that your goal is NOT to be mistaken as a native (although it is a good thing when it happens, it has happened to me on too many occasions to count), but rather to communicate and thereby show respect to someone’s culture and origin.
I know that there’s a myth going around saying that getting compliments means that your language skills are lacking, but usually it doesn’t mean that. Those who say it intend for it to be encouragement and you should take it as such. And they intend for you to let you know how FAR you’ve gone rather than how far you have left to go, even if you have only a few words.
Life is too short and too precious for discouragement! Keep on winning!