What to do if people are unkind about your English

I decided to write about this because although it’s not a fun topic, I think it’s an important one and something that we as teachers don’t often talk about.

The classroom can be a sheltered environment. Generally, teachers want students to do well, and they’ll be encouraging and constructive. Well, the good ones will. But there’s a big world out there, and not all of the interactions we have will be positive ones. Sometimes people say and do things that knock our confidence, or make us feel less positive about our language skills.

To be honest, my experiences using my German, Romanian and occasional Turkish have been overwhelmingly positive. I’m a learner and a teacher, and I can also relate to those of you who use a language at work that isn’t your native language.

However, an experience a couple of weeks ago made me think about several times when I got an unhelpful response to my German, so I decided to share my experiences here.

The key questions

If I get a negative or unhelpful comment about my language skills, I try to ask myself 3 questions:

1. Is there any truth in what was said? Even if the delivery was horrible and the person was downright mean – is there anything that I can learn from what they said?

2. How am I going to respond? I’m not responsible for anyone else’s behaviour or bad attitude, but I am responsible for how I respond to them. Does the comment need a reaction? If so, how do I want to portray myself?
3. Is there anything I can learn? Is there anything positive or useful that I can take from this situation? If so, I want to identify what it is and then move on. This situation does not deserve to dominate the rest of my day!

1. Impatience. You’re an idiot!

The person in question didn’t actually call me an idiot, but she got very frustrated because, as a beginner, I was struggling to put together a follow-up question. I’d been asked to do something and because I couldn’t get my clarification question out fast enough, she basically sighed, asked why I couldn’t do such a simple thing and did it herself.

Was there any truth in it? No, I concluded that she was just a grumpy individual who didn’t know how hard it is to communicate in another language.

How did I respond? I walked away. Although I would have quite enjoyed telling her what I thought, my language skills just weren’t up to it at that time, and I decided it probably wouldn’t do any good anyway.

What did I learn? I learned to have empathy for people in similar situations. I learned to memorise some key phrases asking for further information or clarification. I learned not to let one person knock my confidence because there were plenty of other people around at that time who were kind, patient and encouraging.

2. Your mistakes are so funny

Nobody likes it when people laugh at them. I don’t mean when you accidentally say something that is actually funny. I mean when people laugh because you made a mistake and they want to make you feel small.

I had written something in German online and there was a small error. One word in fact. Someone copied the part of the sentence with the incorrect word and sent me the line of text with laughing faces.

Was there any truth in what they said? Well, they did make me aware of the mistake.

How did I respond? I fixed the error. I didn’t respond because I didn’t like the way the person chose to communicate and didn’t think they deserved a response.

What did I learn? Well, everyone makes mistakes. I may have spotted it if I’d read my text through once more, but I may not. However that was one word out of about 200, and when looked at in that way, it wasn’t the end of the world.

3. You don’t understand because it’s not your native language

I was taking part in an email discussion about a project. I was the only non-native German speaker and I didn’t agree with a point that someone had made.

“Well, you’re German is good, but I think the problem is that you don’t understand the discussion”.

That made me angry! Of course I understood what was going on. I just didn’t agree, and that didn’t make my point any less valid than what the native speakers wanted to say.

Was there any truth in it? Absolutely not!

How did I respond? I couldn’t leave the comment unchallenged, so I did explain that I had understood everything and I just had a different opinion. It’s not good to look down on people just because they aren’t native speakers and they maybe aren’t as eloquent as they would be in their native language.

What did I learn? Sometimes people won’t see you as an equal because you are not a native speaker, but you still deserve to have a voice and for that voice to be heard.

4. Your language skills are rubbish!

I posted something in a German forum. Unfortunately I had amended an older text that had been used for something else and left a couple of words in that didn’t belong there. Someone responded, just seconds after I’d posted it, and basically said that if my language skills were as bad as that, people shouldn’t bother working with me.

Great! I do get most of the adverts and texts on my website checked by native speakers, but I communicate with customers and potential customers in German all the time, often explaining complicated grammar points or helping with vocabulary. I rarely have problems, but sometimes I choose the wrong word or use incorrect grammar – firstly because nobody’s perfect and secondly because I’m not a native speaker. That’s life. It’s certainly not a reason to start attacking random strangers on the internet, but everyone has to decide how they want to be seen online. And let’s face it, some people just enjoy making unkind comments on social media.

Was there any truth in it? Yes. It wasn’t the best thing I’d ever written. There were a couple of mistakes that I should have spotted. I thought the comment was unnecessary and the author could easily have been more constructive, but she was still right in that the text didn’t show me in the most positive way. Maybe she didn’t even realise that I wasn’t a native speaker, but I was talking about learning English, not German, and perfect German skills don’t guarantee that someone will be able to speak English fluently.

What did I do? Well, firstly, I realised that I had come a long way on my language journey. A few years ago, I would have been horrified that someone had been so negative about my German. I would have deleted the post and waited for the floor to open up. But not any more.

I corrected the post, pointed out that I was not a native speaker and was only using German because that was the forum language, but most importantly didn’t feel inferior because I hadn’t written as well as a native speaker. Of course every learner wants to work to the best of their ability, but it’s unreasonable to expect that you’ll never make mistakes.

What did I learn? Check things extra thoroughly, particularly if you have amended a previous text. Think of any negative comments in the context of all the other comments you receive – they’re mostly positive. If you take any emotions out of a situation, outsiders will judge you and the other person based on how you portray yourselves online. If I started randomly attacking people online as soon as I saw a mistake in English, I’d be busy all day. I don’t do that because that’s not who I am. It’s definitely not the online persona that I want to have.

Also, I realised that other people may have seen the mistakes and just clicked away because they thought the text didn’t look good. In this respect, the comment was more useful, because I realised I had something to fix before anyone else saw it. If you produce English texts and you’d like someone to have a look at them before they go online, my English good to go service may be just what you’re looking for!

Final thoughts

Most of the time, people will be happy that you’re trying to learn another language. However, there are times when you need to develop a thick skin like a rhino, so that negative comments don’t ruin the rest of your day. See what can be learned from the situation, then move on and don’t let it knock your confidence.

I know people who have had far worse to deal with in terms of unkind comments and bad behaviour. I’ve used these examples because they’re my examples. I know that other people sometimes have to deal with insults and verbal abuse. However that wasn’t really the focus of this post – I wanted to talk about the smaller things that sometimes make us question whether our language skills really are good enough.

Have you had any experiences like this? What happened, and what did you do?

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