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Is Complimenting Your Spanish Offensive in Latin America?

Published October 5, 2021 in Learning Spanish & Portuguese , Mexico - 0 Comments

About a month ago or so, I decided to join a few extra groups on Whatsapp or Facebook in order to meet more people.

As I sometimes indicate on this website, I rarely meet or hang out with other gringos.

There’s a few I know regularly but I don’t go outside of my own little bubble of people I hang out with already.

But I’ve been making some minor efforts to getting out there more and meeting more people just because.

Living down here in Latin America, life can be very boring or very fun when you have lots of free time.

Very boring if you choose to chill at home more often with nothing to do or very fun if you go out there exploiting all of the free time you have on your hands.

I’ve been guilty of the former but figured I’ll try to put in the effort on the latter more these days.

To be fair, it’s also helped me cut down on the drinking a bit too.

Personally, while I’ve had plenty of fun nights drinking heavy during my more active months going out, I also feel part of my increase in drinking over the last year has been from being bored.

When you’re too bored with nothing to do, it’s easier to pull out a bottle to pass the time while listening to music like this song here.

Benny More -- Santa Isabel de las Lajas

Something that helps me drunkenly imagine myself as some colonial American living in the rural countryside of Cuba owning a tobacco plantation or something.

At any rate, like I said, I joined a few random groups on the internet for folks looking to meet new people.

Back when I lived in Buenos Aires or Cochabamba, they had some “foreign language exchange events” that basically boiled down to having a beer with complete strangers and conversing in English or Spanish.

That’s always been my cup of tea but the language events I’ve noticed in Mexico City seem to me, at least from initial observations, to be more focused on legit language practice and not meeting people.

I don’t give as many fucks for the language practice btu more just to meet cool people with a few beers.

Anyway, I joined some mountain hiking group.

And, beyond that, there’s some “games” group where foreigners and some Mexicans play games while hanging out.

To be honest, I was hesitant to actually attend any events of the last group because the folks involved seem a little bit too geeky for me.

I always got weird socially awkward vibes from the folks in the group.

They seem nice!

But something off in the vibe if you know what I mean?

Plus, while I’ve been open minded to doing whatever to meet people, I haven’t found myself motivated enough to attend “game” events.

But there was one minor get together organized a few days ago that I went to.

No games involved.

Some chick proposed to get together at whatever café to hang out with whoever wants to attend.

Thankfully, someone proposed changing café to a bar.

Which is nice for me because I don’t like coffee and would much rather have a beer.

Given the lack of games involved and with nothing to do, I joined them.

And, while meeting together, there was a funny observation one person made that I never heard before.

Let’s get to it.

Get Together at a Bar

As you can guess, the event was held in Roma Norte.

One of the most touristy areas of Mexico City.

From my observations over the last month, it seems to me that almost everyone in the group lives in Roma Norte or Condesa.

That’s where they host all their events.

So I got on the metrobus and arrived to Metro Insurgentes area in about 30 minutes.

Once there, I found the bar easily enough because it’s in an area that I used to take a lot of Tinder chicks to in my first year in Mexico City.

Surprisingly, the bar in question is one that was around 4 years ago.

Over the years here, there’s a handful of bars and restaurants that have closed down.

Lots of them!

From the September 19th earthquake to Covid restrictions, plenty of businesses have gone under.

Anyway, there were 4 other people in the group who showed up.

With 3 dudes and the 1 chick who proposed getting together.

The chick was Canadian, 2 of the dudes were American and 1 dude was Mexican actually.

Though the group is largely of foreigners, there are some Mexicans in the group who simply want to practice their English.

And, if we’re being honest, maybe there’s a few of them who want to meet a nice foreign gal also.

Like the reverse of the gringo sex tourist – the one who fetishizes foreigners.

You got some men in Mexico and broader Latin America like that too.

Anyway, the one Mexican dude was someone named Irvin.

The chick was Maryam from what I remember and one of the American dudes was called Justin.

I forgot the other dude though or what his name was?

Anyway, we ordered 2 bucks of beers or like 12 total.

And mostly just had an uneventful discussion about ourselves, life in Mexico, what we’re doing here, etc.

The more relevant part though was when Justin asked some employee where the bathroom was in Spanish.

The employee pointed him in the right direction and Justin came back soon enough.

Now, keep in mind, all of our conversation amongst ourselves was in English.

So nobody was ever saying anything in Spanish except for Irvin ordering the beers for us after we decided to get 2 buckets.

Justin was the first one to say anything in Spanish and it was literally nothing more than just “where’s the bathroom?”

When he came back, Justin asked some employee if he could open one of the beers for him.

Obviously, Justin asked that in Spanish.

Afterwards, Irvin complimented Justin in English about how “his Spanish seems good!”

With beer in hand, Justin made some remark back about how “of course, I’ve been in Mexico for over a year now.”

Keep in mind, Justin came to Mexico basically when the whole Covid thing started.

Did he know any Spanish before his time in Mexico began? I have no idea.

He was from Indiana where you don’t have that many Latinos and he wasn’t Latino himself.

If I had to guess, maybe he took some Spanish classes like a lot of Americans do to graduate from high school or college.

But it’s fair to think that Justin might’ve had limited to no experience with Spanish before he came to Mexico.

Was his Spanish good anyway?

I guess?

All he did was ask where the bathroom is and if the employee can crack open one of the beers for him.

That’s not really indicative of having good Spanish because you only need two sentences to say both of those requests.

Still, Justin seemed confident in his Spanish.

As he replied back (almost offended he looked) with a “of course, I’ve been in Mexico long enough now.”

And, in the moment, I think Irvin could sense something clicked wrongly in Justin’s head.

Like he could get a sense that Justin might’ve been a little bit offended at the compliment.

To which Irvin replied “yeah, it’s good for an American. You’ve learned quickly.”

And Justin, funny enough, couldn’t take the compliment as is.

He threw back about how “yeah, it’s not surprising. I’ve been in Mexico for a while now.”

And Irvin said something about how he knows how hard it is to learn a foreign language with him learning English.

But then Maryam said something and the conversation focused on whatever it was (I forgot).

Still, in that moment, I noticed something that actually reminded me of my time back in Ohio.

“Of course I speak English, gringo. I live here.”

Back when I lived in a small town in Ohio, we had a handful of Latinos who lived in the town going to the same college as I did.

While at this college, there was some Mexican-American chick named Rosa from Los Angeles area of the country.

Anyway, Rosa didn’t have an accent just to remember.

She was born in the US.

Very clearly from the country by how she spoke.

But yet I remember her saying something to me about something offensive.

From what I remember, we were at some frat house where a bunch of folks, including myself, were playing some game that resembled pool.

I forgot what it was since we were all a bit drunk and I had never seen it played before.

It wasn’t pool though but you basically used your hands to get some ball into a hole but the other person is supposed to stop you.

Anyway, while at the party, Rosa was there and said something in the small room about some dude who complimented her on her English.

And she took it offensively.

Saying “of course I speak English! I’m from here!”

And, putting the two examples above together, I guess it’s a question: is it offensive to compliment someone on their language skills?

“Your Spanish is Good! Your English is Good!”

First, let’s address the most obvious point in the room.

Rosa was actually from the US but Justin was not from Mexico and only had a year in Mexico to begin with.

I can much more easily see why Rosa would find it offensive.

Second, are there Latinos in the US who were not born in the US but also find it offensive similar to someone like Justin finding the opposite happening in Mexico offensive?

I’m sure situations in reverse have happened – some Latino visits the US, gets complimented on his English and is offended.

It should be remembered though that, even if you have lived in the US or Mexico as a foreigner for 10 years even, it’s not entirely surprising to some if you never learned much English or Spanish.

In my small town in Iowa, there’s a Mexican restaurant I’ve gone to all my life where the husband of the restaurant spoke English pretty poorly until like the last few years.

He’s a nice guy but it was never that good until recently.

His wife though speaks it perfectly.

In reverse, you have folks in Mexico who have spent a long time there never learning much of Spanish.

So let’s drop the assumption that simply spending significant time in another country means that you speak the language well. Not everyone does.

Third, some will mention how it’s so hard to learn the other one’s language (English or Spanish). I guess it depends on the person. For me, it was never difficult. I don’t find the gap between both languages to be very wide relative to languages like Mandarin or Arabic. Still, learning a language is still an impressive accomplishment no matter how you spin it.

Fourth, let’s recognize that some of these folks who compliment you on your English or Spanish are just trying to be nice. In Rosa’s case, like I said, I think it’s more understandable why she got annoyed given that she doesn’t have an accent and was born in the US.

However, for the actual foreigner who lives in either the US or Mexico, I think we should restrain from getting offended if something like this is said. It’s not usually the person trying to be patronizing. They’re just trying to be nice by complimenting you. That’s what I feel Irvin was doing.

Fifth, let’s talk about insecurity. I feel the case of Justin being offended or some Latino immigrant being offended in the US is a sign of it from either one or both directions.

In which they are either insecure about their language abilities and go “of course I speak your language! Don’t even question it” or they are insecure about being an outsider in which being complimented on your language skills is a reminder that you are an outsider.

I wrote more about the outsider effect here.

Anyway, I do think there’s some insecurity that kicks in this type of reaction for some of the people who react this way to a compliment on their language skills.

And, to be fair, I’m not above it!

As I wrote here, I found it odd how some Latinos find it surprising and ask you “you speak Spanish?” after having already conversed with them in Spanish for an hour beforehand.

And they are just surprised that you actually speak it.

Which is the next point.

Sixth, it’s just the case that some folks are ignorant about your language abilities.

Try not to get too offended though most of the time.

We all have a little bit of ignorance. Try to understand where they are coming from.

A rural American who has never hung out with too many Latino immigrants to a Mexican who hasn’t seen too many foreigners speak Spanish.

Both have their ignorance.

Ignorance isn’t good obviously.

It can be annoying.

But it doesn’t come with malicious intent in this case.

It’s just simple ignorance that you can correct but try to do so without being too much of an ass about it.

Just understand that some folks might be a little bit ignorant about your ability to converse in their language (English or Spanish) but they’re not bad intentioned when complimenting you. They’re just trying to be nice and have never seen a foreigner speak their language before.

Not justifying it but that’s how I see it.

Anyway, my final answer to the question of the article is that “no, it’s not offensive to compliment someone on their Spanish.”

Or English!

Of course, as we have seen, it can be taken offensively but I think most people who get offended should just take a chill pill.

I get their annoyance – I’m the first one in line to make fun of the occasional ignorant Latino who can’t comprehend how a foreigner can speak Spanish – but let’s try to be understanding here as I said before.

I don’t see it as something to let ruin your day or even be offended if someone simply says the nice statement “you speak Spanish (or English) well.”

Unless you’re Rose – then I would get it but I would still caution against letting it ruin your day.

Regardless, that’s my take on it.

Leave any comments below in the comment section.

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Thanks for reading.

Best regards,


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