When your English is too good

Some people just can’t win it seems. Second language speakers are in that category. I can’t even begin to count how many people who have read a fraction of the English literature I have read and who have never written much in English take the liberty to comment on my English. They usually congratulate me on how good it is … That’s what you call a left-handed compliment I suppose – I doubt that anyone goes around congratulating Maths professors that they’ve mastered arithmetic and can handle two-digit figures with such ease.

Many native speakers take it upon themselves to judge the English of people who don’t speak their brand of English. In the case of migrants to Australia this is most often to point out some deficiency: the judgment that someone’s English isn’t good enough has become a key facet of social exclusion and the judgment is used to keep migrants out of jobs or keep them in jobs below their qualifications. In fact, migrants, and particularly refugees, have become so firmly associated with “poor English” in the public imagination that having good English is now being used in the media to judge whether a refugee is “genuine” or not. I’m talking about the spokesman for the asylum seekers who were stuck on the Oceanic Viking until a few days ago. Both the fact that he is using an English name (Alex) instead of his “real” name and the fact that he is “well-spoken” and speaks “English with an American accent” have been held against him and have been used to discredit him. This is from an ABC interview:

MARK COLVIN: And the High Commissioner also said, I’ll quote “Alex’s accent is quite a distinct American accent. It is not the accent of a Sri Lankan Tamil”.
ALEX: Does the Sri Lankan High Commissioner feel that people in Sri Lanka don’t have American accents or British accents? Is there not international schools in Sri Lanka? Is there not people that do accent training for call centres and various other customer care services?
MARK COLVIN: So you trained in a call centre?
ALEX: Pardon me? I was trained in a call centre for an American call centre.

Alex himself has apparently been as surprised as I am that his high level of English proficiency could come to discredit his claim to refugee status:

[Alex] has expressed surprise over the fact that how his American accent English could become a reason for the rejection of his refugee plea. “Just because I speak English, and I was educated in an American boys mission school in my home town, and then I finished my BA, and then I finished my MBA in India, so does that mean I am not a refugee?

“We are facing genocide in Sri Lanka — it’s not about whether you are educated or not educated. Just the fact that you are Tamil, […]

A true Catch 22 story: call center operators all over the world as well as many migrants to Australia have to change their names to make it in an English-speaking world; similarly, they have to adjust their accents so that they sound less “foreign” to their far-away call-center customers or close-by employers.

Around the world learning English comes with the promise of social advancement and inclusion in the mythical “West” – just to be told “Ooops, overshot the mark, you’re too good to be genuine.”

About Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Over the course of her international career, she has also held appointments at universities in Germany, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates and USA. Ingrid’s research expertise is in Intercultural Communication, the Sociolinguistics of Language Learning and Multilingualism, and Bilingual Education. She is particularly interested in the ways in which linguistic diversity as it arises in the contexts of globalization and migration intersects with social inclusion and global justice.
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4 Responses to When your English is too good

  1. Vahid says:

    Dear Ingrid,

    And Sometimes the english of non-native students of English is automatically biased toward formality! Once when I was a BA stdent of Englsih I wanted to apply for a TTC in Canada. I, thereofre, sent my application form to the secretary of the university which at that time was offering such a course. Having examined my application form, she replied “vahid! do you read shakespeare alot?!!!”

    Have fun,

  2. vittoria says:

    This is a very interesting piece. I have been fascinated by the response to Alex’s accent by the media. I am not Australian born but people assume I am – I have often been asked how I managed to learn it and get away without having ‘an accent’. In other words I have to justify why it’s not as ‘bad’ as it should be because I am a migrant.
    Re in/formal language. I find it interesting that knowledge of slang terms becomes a test or measure of English competence. I recently heard a tertiary level international student say his English was ‘not good’ because he didn’t understand some Australian slang words.

  3. Christine says:

    Ironic is it not? One would think in the 21st century that a person’s place of birth and/or nationality would not be so thoroughly linked to assumptions about language.That in this ever-mobile world, people would not find this so amazing. And yet, I find the Canadians shocked to discover that I (an American) speak French, the border guards everywhere have trouble with the fact that my husband has an Italian passport while mine is US, that he has been asked why his family is living in France, etc.
    Worse yet, were it simply the population in general I might understand, but when people work in international airports? Do they fail to see the delightful diversity of humanity that is “mixing it up” globally as we travel and learn about each other? Ah well, one day perhaps.

  4. Jenny Zhang says:

    A real-life Catch 22 story. What is sadder about the story is that many EFL learners across the world don’t have basic critical language awareness. The hegemony of English, nowadays, is not simply imposed by “inner circle” English-speaking countries onto EFL societies but constructed and reinforced locally by EFL societies themselves. In most EFL Asian countries, English carries miraculous symbolic meaning for economic advancement and upward social mobility.

    Just see how Liu Wenli (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G_1halx5D1k), an ordinary Chinese policeman made famous and were set up as a role modal by the Chinese government after he acquired English with a Brooklyn accent.

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