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The International Writers Magazine: Learning a Language

Empty Compliments and the Language Learner
Antonio Graceffo
Meeting a new Thai person I simply said “Sawadis krap.” Without a second’s hesitation, he said, in English “You Speak Thai very well.” Was I supposed to feel encouraged?


Should my head have swollen to monumental proportions because of this meaningful recognition of my linguistic prowess? I simply answered with a question.
“How would you know?”

In Taiwan, I walked into the staff room of my new job and said to a Chinese teacher, in Chinese, “I am teaching level Seven-A tonight. Where would I find the resources and course outline?”
She answered, in English, “Wow! Cool, you speak Chinese.” And then she walked away, without answering my question.

So much of learning a language is actually about learning the culture. In Asia, people seem to enjoy bestowing, and I assume, receiving completely empty compliments. I was actually told in a school in Korea that I should make it a point to tell my female students that they were very beautiful and their English was good. It sort of made me feel ooky because I don’t think it is appropriate for a teacher to tell a student that they are beautiful or handsome or sexy or cute. There are people who have said things like that to students in America, and now Megan’s Law prohibits them from coming within 1,000 feet of a school. Also, I would hate to have
to wear one of those ankle bracelets that alerts the police every time I leave the house.

On my list of pet-peeves, a list so large that it can be seen from space, is foreigners who buy into these compliments when they are learning an Asian language.

A friend of mine in Vietnam is really doing everything right, as far as learning Vietnamese. So, I want to be supportive and encourage him. He has learned more in seven months than most people will learn in countless years, simply because he is attending classes and doing self-study. But, even this friend, call him C3-PO, bought into the false compliment game.
C3-PO told me, “My pronunciation is nearly perfect.”
“How do you know?” I asked, as it takes more than 1,000 hours of listening to achieve perfect pronunciation in Vietnamese. “Because everywhere I go and speak Vietnamese, people compliment me.” C3-PO answered.

And so I asked C3-PO, “Have you ever heard a non-native speaker, speaking English?”
“Of course I have. I am an English teacher. I have heard thousands of them.” He answered. “My parents aren’t even native speakers.”
“Do you feel qualified to evaluate if someone speaks English well or not?”
“Yes, of course, I am a placement tester at my school?” answered C3-PO.
“Do you think the Vietnamese people who complimented your Vietnamese pronunciation were placement testers at schools?”

As native speakers of English we have grown up listening to foreign accents. In my case, it is extreme because I come from New York City where nearly 100% of my classmates were first or second generation immigrants whose grandparents, and often their parents were not native speakers. But even if you are from a homogenous American neighborhood in Ohio, you grew
up watching American movies and TV shows which took place in foreign countries or had foreign characters speaking English.

I learned to do the Italian and Spanish accents at home, but I learned the German accent from watching Hogan’s Heroes, Japanese from McHales Navy, Swedish from The Muppets, and most of the others from Bugs Bunny.

Asians generally haven’t had this experience. Nowadays, they get American movies in English with subtitles or dubbed into their native language, but they almost never have foreign characters in their movies speaking their language. Think of movies like The Last Emperor a movie about the history of China made by an American company for an American audience.
Asian countries don’t make historical epics about famous western people.

Shogun an American movie set in feudal Japan, about a European sailor.
There is no analogous movie in Asia.

Americans, particularly those who have traveled or are more global, would recognize from someone’s accent if they are French or Japanese. Most Asians haven’t heard enough foreigners speaking their language to be able to differentiate.

Probably, in fairness, I would say the average American couldn’t tell from accent or appearance which Asian country someone came from. BUT we would be qualified to evaluate if their English was good or not. And most likely if we didn’t understand them at all, we wouldn’t think they spoke very well.

I went on to ask C3-PO, how many non-native speakers of Vietnamese had the average Vietnamese person ever heard speaking Vietnamese? The answer is that we are still at a point that many Vietnamese have never had any significant contact with a foreigner of any kind. And the number of foreigners who speak Vietnamese is so small, relative to the number of
foreigners who live in the country, the average person has no idea at all how to evaluate you. They are just so happy that you have made the attempt that they compliment you, EVEN IF they don’t understand a word that yousay.

And, this is where I get angry at my people and why I want to get in a boxing ring with 78% of foreigners learning Asian languages in Asia. I have witnessed, with my own eyes, literally hundreds of times that a foreigner wanted to show off how good his Thai, Khmer, Chinese, or
Vietnamese was, so he spoke at length to a local. I saw the local’s face go from a fake smile, to worry, then fear, then back to worry, and finally a fake smile again. The local then said, cheerfully, “You speak so well.”
And there was zero indication that they understood the foreigner at all.
Often the foreigner was asking directions or some question which required an answer, or he was trying to buy something and the communication stalled the transaction. He didn’t get his answer, but he was so pleased with the complement that he happily went on his way without his insulin or whatever it was he had been trying to buy.

“Wow! I must be great at this language. Everyone compliments me.”

Another instance in Vietnam was a female co-worker who said, “I am gifted with languages.”

This seems to be a really common belief. I receive emails and Facebook messages daily from people who believe themselves to be gifted language learners. The number of people who told me that they are gifted with languages is off the charts. And honestly, not one of these people spoke more than one foreign language well and many of them spoke zero foreign languages well. This particular girl, let’s call her Leia, went on to say,
“I have been told that I have perfect pronunciation in Vietnamese.”
Sadly, Leia was telling this to Vietnamese staff member, in English. And the Vietnamese staff member looked confused and surprised.

Leia had only been in the country a few weeks, wasn’t attending classes, and didn’t actually speak Vietnamese at all. To me, this seems delusional. I don’t understand why these people aren’t locked up somewhere.

Leia then proceeded to read the ingredients on the ketchup bottle, in Vietnamese, very badly, translating each word, wrong.

Most people in Asia are very polite. Nearly all Asian cultures are confrontation avoiders and face is a huge issue. I have seen people go to ridiculous lengths of forcing themselves to see the Emperor’s New Clothes, rather than to admit that someone had made a mistake and thus cause that person to lose face. Most Asian people aren’t going to tell you to your face that your language skills suck. They won’t even admit that they don’t understand you.

If you are living in Asia. Definitely study the language. Definitely make an effort to talk to people, to communicate with them. People do appreciate when you speak their language. However, only speak their language if it will facilitate communication. If the person you are
talking to has excellent English, why torture them with your faulty foreign language?

Less than one percent of people are gifted language learners. So, most likely, you are not one. Your native tongue doesn’t count. If you are born with five native tongues you still don’t know if you are a gifted learner or not until you actually try and learn a foreign language. If you
actually speak more than three or four learned languages well, it is possible that you are gifted, but even that proves nothing. You may just be a gifted communicator.

That’s what I am, a gifted communicator. I am gifted at using the small amount of language I have to communicate at a higher level. In a very fair evaluation of my Chinese, which is my best Asian language, I was told that I was lower intermediate in vocabulary, reading, writing, and grammar, but advanced in communication ability.

Don’t be confused between good at communication and good at language. Many learners, when they reach a point that they can use their local language to function, they stop studying and learning. My old German professor used to call this syndrome “Me want cookie.” Everyone knows what you are saying, but you talk like a four year old.

If you have a local girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse, lesbian-life-partner, or friends, it still takes over 1,000 hours of listening to learn the language. But you may reach your 1,000 hours in six months instead of years.

It takes extensive listening to learn pronunciation. Asian people will compliment your speaking, no matter what you say or whether they understand you or not. If you want to evaluate your Asian language skills, go to the nearest language school and take a free placement exam. They will tell you straight away what your actual academic level of fluency is.

Most of your friends or people you meet on the street won’t evaluate your listening, but that is the key to the language. Your real level is the level at which you can understand, not talk. Can you sit in a café and pick up the thread of the conversation of two native speakers sitting at
the next table. Can you actually, HONESTLY, participate in conversations with groups of native speakers?

For example, your Chinese friends are debating the merits of pegging their currency to the dollar. In the middle of this heated debate, one of them turns to you and says in baby Chinese, “Where do you come from?”

I got news for you, you are not participating in a conversation. A conversation is happening between native speakers, but they thought you looked board so they shot you a life line. Usually, you will answer and they will either return immediately to their previous conversation. Or, they may ask you two more banal questions, like “how old are you” and “do
you have brothers and sisters?” No matter what you answer, they will simply return to their conversation. Either way, don’t kid yourself into believing you can hold your own in a conversation with native speakers.

And of course, the final point, also the primary point, the compliment:
“You speak Thai so well.” It means nothing, nothing at all. Just say “thank you” and keep studying.

© Antonio Graceffo Jan 2010

See Antonio Graceffo’s multipart video series for free, on youtube.
ALG Vietnamese Linguistics Part 1

Also see Antonio’s video
ALG Vietnamese Picture Story Le Loi
In a recent round of interviews, networks and media sent Antonio the question via email and Antonio answered on camera. If you are interested in doing a similar interview, fire off the questions to Antonio. Antonio is looking for an opportunity to study for an MA/PHD in linguistics.

Antonio Graceffo is the author of the book, “The Monk from Brooklyn,” and
is he is the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts odyssey.”
Contact Antonio Graceffo on
Send him email

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