JOHANNESBURG – “You speak English so well” are words many people of colour in South Africa have heard at least once in their lifetime. However well-intended it may be, though, it’s simply offensive.
On Radio 702’s Weekend Breakfast, a listener by the name of Malcolm called in to congratulate host Phemelo Motene on the way she speaks English. (He didn’t, actually, having called on another topic, but mentioned it in a preamble.)
The radio host responded to Malcolm’s comment by saying that she takes offence to the statement he made.
“The assumption that us, who are not of English origins, chose to speak English is a sad thing she says,” (sic) Motene says.
“To congratulate me, and to make it seem like this is an accolade (sic) is extremely offensive because of our history.
“It’s not an honour to speak English well… It’s very painful that we find ourselves where one language is more dominant than the others.”
The opening paragraph is as absurd as it is untrue. Only a warped viewpoint could translate such praise into something offensive. This perception has been nurtured by endlessly dwelling on all the negative aspects, for members of ‘other’ races, of colonialism and of apartheid, to the extent of bleating, against all common sense and evidence, that positive sides do not exist.
Should an English speaker have occasion to learn Chinese or Spanish (as languages spoken by more people than English) and receive praise for proficiency in speaking them, can you imagine this being taken as anything other than a pleasing compliment?
Is there something wrong with me that I find no pain whatsoever in contemplating the fact that my language is not the dominant one? Is there anywhere on earth where no particular language is dominant?
This is not so much a case of people who take such offence having a chip on their shoulders, it is more one of them electing to carry round a great big log. This is done in apparent blissful ignorance that it is not only extremely uncomfortable, but also makes them look ridiculous.