Why I hate being told I speak a foreign language well

Sniper Tower upgrade to Level 7 complete!

50 minutes through an ‘intensive reading’ class at a Chinese university, news of a defence upgrade on Boom Beach is welcomed. I quickly unlocked my phone and weighed up my options — upgrade my Gunboat No, that takes 6 hours… Upgrade my Canon and it’ll be done by the time I finish classes today!

“……. 好吗?好!” (Okay? Good.) is all I heard when I resurfaced and focused on class again, meaning I had missed my teacher’s instructions.

“Hey, was machen wir jetzt?” (What are we doing now?), I said to the guy sitting in front of me, gambling that his Bayern Munich pencil case was a solid indicator that he was German.

“Ach dein Deutsch ist echt super! We do this exercise here and then discuss our answers with eachother”. Him telling me my German was ‘so good’ was both the first and last thing I wanted to hear, but I didn’t stop to think about it until Felix and I had raced through exercise 4 on page 56 with tremendous precision. 100%, naturally!

German maestro?

Effectively, I was told that my German skills were ‘so good’ for simply asking what was going on. I’m sure it would get annoying for my foreign friends here in Shanghai if every time they asked me ‘So, are we having rice or noodles for lunch’ or ‘Hey the air is so good today, I can actually see the sky!’ I told them ‘Woah, your English is so good!’. Although that is a totally unfair comparison, because of the difference in presence of English over other languages, and the fact that — using my experience in Shanghai as an example — English is the mutual and everyday language of expats, I think it’s an eye-opener because…

It reminds me of Brits’ reputation.

Felix meant no harm, he was just surprised. Surprised that someone from the UK (1) learnt another language and (2) chose German. He didn’t mean to remind me that since that since the dawn of time (apologies in advance for the link), Brits have been known for speaking less than or equal to one whole language — English. A YouGov poll in 2013 noted that 75% of Brits could not speak any language on the British Council’s Top 10 language list. In comparison, over 86% of Norwegians, Swedes and Danes speak English which is a higher proportion of their populations than English speakers in Canada. Taking a trip back to reality and away from the Scandinavian super-humans, 64% of Germans speak English to a ‘second language’ level. How do we return the favour? 6% of us can ‘hold a conversation’ in German.

Once again, these comparisons are unfair at face value, but as an aspiring hyperpolyglot I want to remind people of our bad reputation, and as a complainer I want everyone to know I don’t like this reputation.

It lowers my aspirations.

That’s why after just one sentence in German, Felix was impressed with me — he rarely hears people who aren’t from Germany speaking German, and when you filter that group down to English people speaking German, the number drops to 0. The same way when I speak French, Italian, Chinese or even Norwegian, people are surprised when I come out with something other than ‘hello’. When this happens often, it has the potential to make you think you’re better than you actually are. This is definitely something which affects those who do languages at GCSE and A-Level, but my open letter to the government about language learning in the UK is for another day. So, to those who hear something similar to what Felix told me, remember, often what they actually mean is this: ‘Yes, relatively speaking you’re good at my language, but on an absolute scale you have much to learn to convince me’.

If you’re a Brit learning a foreign language, you have to look for other signs to work out if you’re actually good at a language. Luckily I have compiled a quick-start list for you below:

  • Being confused for a French person by a Belgian whilst speaking French
  • After learning Norwegian for 3 weeks, being confused for being a native whilst speaking Norwegian among a group of Norwegian friends and some Germans you have never met
  • Being confused for being German by a Danish man who is fluent in German whilst getting street food in Nha Trang, Vietnam, at 4 am
  • Being told you have ‘no accent’ in German by a Chinese person who is fluent in German

Wait, that’s the list of things that have happened to me since coming to Shanghai for my year abroad… I lost my other list.

My first proper post on LinkedIn wouldn’t be complete without some sort of moral or message to tie together my ramblings. I guess I would just like to say to everyone — you are being lied to if you get told it’s too late to start learning a language. Furthermore, especially if you’re British, don’t be happy when someone tells you you are ‘good’ at another language, be encouraged and instead seek moments like the four I listed above. Trust me, it’s better.

Until next time,


Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on April 19, 2016.