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I am a native Czech speaker and English is my secondary language. I communicate with foreigners including both English and non-English natives. Sometimes, before we meet in person, I let them know I am far from a native and I ask for a bit of understanding with my speaking/listening as long as I still learn the language. They usually reply:

Your English is definitely better than my Czech!

I am not sure how to interpret it. I have encountered people of various Czech language proficiency: Most of them were only able to say "thank you" or "goodbye" in Czech. On the other hand, few of them were quite fluent.

  • Likely negative: Does it have a slightly pejorative meaning that "Your English sucks less than my Czech"? Although, it used, a smile :) after might indicate a joke, tease...
  • Rather neutral: Is it just a neutral phrase of politeness meaning "Do not worry, I try my best to understand you"?
  • Just a phrase: It has no real hidden meaning and is yet another phrase like "Hey, how are you"?
  • Likely positive: Do they want to cheer me up that I surprise them and I am doing really well?
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    @user428517: English is idiomatic and the phrase "how are you" is certainly idiomatic if used as a greeting, so there is no real interest to seek information. It's a phatic expression to be exact. English is full of these. – Nikolas Charalambidis Dec 12 '20 at 22:28
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    @Nikolas Charalambidis: I think that example is location-dependent. For example, in some places, it may actually be considered rude not to answer it in some way. – Peter Mortensen Dec 13 '20 at 15:33
  • @PeterMortensen: Care to elaborate? I'd compose an answer if I were you :) – Nikolas Charalambidis Dec 13 '20 at 15:34
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    And, by the way, they're right. – Asteroids With Wings Dec 13 '20 at 20:50
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    This makes me think of the show NCIS. In it there's a girl name Ziva... she's Israeli and her English is good but she's constantly messing up idioms that a "native" would normally understand. While that's a TV show and the act is done for effect... I feel as if you'd feel right at home with her character. – user3321 Dec 14 '20 at 10:37
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It’s both a compliment about your skill with English and a self-deprecating joke about our own lack of skill (likely zero) with yours, in hopes this will put you at ease.

The subtext here is that we will forgive any slowness, errors or difficulties you have and are happy to clarify anything we say if needed. We care more about the content of what you’re saying than the form.

This is usually something you’ll hear from native English speakers who have studied a foreign language (probably not yours, and probably long ago) and therefore understand how difficult it is and appreciate how much effort you’ve obviously put into learning ours.

Unfortunately, those who’ve never studied any foreign language tend to think all non-fluent speakers are stupid, and there are enough such people that the rest of us also want to reassure you that we’re not one of them.

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    I don’t think it’s limited to people that have studied other languages, because it’s a common pattern, for instance if someone was (non-professionally) taking a picture for me using my phone, and said they could do a better job with their camera, I might reply that I am sure they will do better with my phone than I would do with their camera (I take lousy photos) – jmoreno Dec 13 '20 at 14:02
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    It’s more of a social/cultural mentality than one of having studied a foreign language. A lot of people here in the US have technically studied a foreign language (most high schools and undergraduate collegiate programs require it for graduation) but many still have a rather hostile attitude towards non-fluent speakers of English or those who do not speak English. OTOH, I observe a lot less of that mentality among people from other English speaking countries. – Austin Hemmelgarn Dec 13 '20 at 16:43
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    I use this joke all the time--let me elaborate a bit. What I am trying to do with the speaker is put them at ease. The meaning is, "You have no need to apologize at all--I know nothing of your language, and I am impressed by your ability to communicate in my language. I don't feel like your knowledge is inadequate; if anyone should feel inadequate, it's me, because I haven't done the work you have to communicate in a foreign language." It's meant to be a compliment and to encourage you to relax and keep trying and know you will not be judged. – msouth Dec 13 '20 at 19:43
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    @AustinHemmelgarn To be fair to Americans, it would be considered uncouth by almost everyone to show impatience, much less hostility, about someone's command of English—if in a polite social setting. Where tempers flare is miscommunication in business transactions—the third time you've had to send your restaurant meal back to the kitchen because the server does not understand your dietary restriction, or the third time you've had to explain your hardware malfunction to off-shore customer support. That is not to excuse hostility, but that is also something I've witnessed all over the world. – choster Dec 14 '20 at 19:49
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    Sorry, it's 101 now... :( – FreeMan Dec 15 '20 at 14:19
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It is a compliment, so it is likely positive. Think of it like that:

Your knowledge of English is better than my knowledge of Czech.

I say only likely positive and not definitely positive because there is a slight possibility this might include a little irony there: More people learn English than Czech, so you wouldn't easily expect your regular person to know Czech, unless required by specific circumstances.

However, I did hear this comment from native speakers in a sincere way, to express that they admire someone learning their language, when they have made no effort to learn his/hers.

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    It is certainly a compliment. A native speaker of English may have learned French or German, for example, but is unlikely to learn something like Czech or Hungarian unless they have a particular reason to do so. If someone says that, they probably mean "I know no Czech at all" or maybe "I only know a few basic words". – Kate Bunting Dec 12 '20 at 11:37
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    I once got a compliment from a Hungarian woman for knowing how to say Ferenc properly. I did not say that the only reason I knew was that I had read about this very issue in a John le Carré novel. – Michael Harvey Dec 12 '20 at 14:32
  • There is no possibility of sarcasm or irony. As @Kate Bunting says, this can only be intended as a compliment. – chasly - supports Monica Dec 14 '20 at 13:52
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In some cases it could be part of determining the language to use in the conversation.

So if it could potentially be either in English or in Czech, them stating that your English is better than their Czech, indicates that the chances of successful communication are better if English is used.

In cases where there is no chance of using any language other than English, the other answers apply.

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    Seconded, I know a number of polyglots who open a conversation with someone they have not met before by asking what languages they speak (usually in English), and the replies I hear them get are often something similar to this. – Austin Hemmelgarn Dec 13 '20 at 16:39
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I disagree with all the answers. The answer 'Your English is definitely better than my Czech!" is the only possible answer to an email with 'apologies for my bad english'. Only other possibility (if his english were incomprehensible) would be silence. You cannot answer with 'apologies accepted' since this would be an (implicit) insult. Maybe 'no worries, your english is fine' would be ok as well, but since it is before meeting for the first time, there is no basis for this.

Also on a more meta level: what is the aim of making such a self-deprecating statement. I mean if you really believe your english is so bad it gives other people pain then study harder.

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    You answer is very specific to emails. Most of the other answers aren't mutually exclusive with what you say. There is no sense of "giving pain". The intention is to relieve the other person's pain/embarrassment at being unable to express themselves clearly in English. – chasly - supports Monica Dec 14 '20 at 13:59
  • @chasly-supportsMonica the two top voted answers say it is a compliment, which I disagree with. (well we cannot infer that). Yes relieve other persons pain/embarressment I agree with, but it is a forced one. Like you say 'I am such an idiot', the only answer can be 'no you are not' (or silence, for the worst of all cases). – lalala Dec 14 '20 at 14:03
  • Well, the parallel version for 'I am such an idiot' would be 'Not such an idiot as I am!' In a relationship, this could be a very good way of making peace with one's partner after a misunderstanding. – chasly - supports Monica Dec 14 '20 at 14:10
  • Hmm, your answer is sound and supports one of the points I have listed in my question. Personally, I believe it heavily depends on the intonation and context. If I were in a position to reply someone to 'apologies for one's bad English', I'd respond either that their English is pretty good (if so) or let them know "It's fine, I'll do my best to get you" (if not). As it's certainly not clear over a written form, the purpose of this question is to find out in what way others (mostly native speakers) would exactly mean responding with this phrase. – Nikolas Charalambidis Dec 14 '20 at 20:47
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Likely positive: Do they want to cheer me up that I surprise them and I am doing really well?

This, I don't speak your language, you speak a language we have in common. You learned a language and you can communicate with people who aren't from your country/ don't know your language.

It's almost a relief, I have no idea how to say something in Czech but you helped me by speaking English.

I speak a bit of German but not very well, it's way easier if a German person spoke a bit of English(or Dutch), it doesn't matter how well because I'm also not at a native level and we'll be able to understand each other better.

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I have had the pleasure and honor to travel the world for work, speaking with a variety of people of all socioeconomic status.

Nearly every single time I would refuse to speak in English unless I was totally stumped- even if I knew no words, I would point and mime, rather than be seen as 'that damn American'.

And every time someone attempted to speak English to me, even some very elderly individuals whom probably never took classes, they ALWAYS apologized to ME for their bad English.

It was a massive embarrassment- here is someone struggling to put words together to make ME feel comfortable and help ME, whereas all I can do is butcher their language utilizing my Latin derivatives and some hard/fast phrases.

In short: Anyone saying that to you, I believe, is complimenting you on your skills. I can't fathom another meaning. Others may correct me here but also language skills are given at school level, correct? A1, A3, etc- indicating a proficiency that (someone from the states) may not have.

Take it as a compliment, or at least a way to move past any misunderstandings and agree that issues in understanding can be worked out.

... I do also remember ordering food in Germany. The server in the course of 3 minutes spoke at least 5 languages to different customers. She was very embarrassed when I asked how many she knew, and she repeatedly stated 'not proficient' over and over when listing them all. She spoke 15 and said she could understand 7 more.

You're good.

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    I believe you might have touched upon the origin of the phrase I ask for. The personal experience is also very interesting. – Nikolas Charalambidis Dec 14 '20 at 20:36
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I'm not a native english speaker either and a bit late to the party but I believe that none of the answers so far really have hit the core of what that response usually means.

In general, I use this phrase when I would like to express that I certainly am not in a position to complain about my counterpart's language skills because they are bringing more to the table than I am. For example, if someone is talking to me in german, my native language, they are doing me a favor and I am in their debt because they put in the work to learn my language and I didn't have to do anything.

So the message that is conveyed here is almost exclusively positive; they want to thank you for being better prepared for the conversation than themselves.

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    That the OP's example is positive is exactly what the accepted answer says, and most of the other answers do, too. – fev Dec 15 '20 at 11:25
  • @fev, that's right, but the accepted answer totally misses the point of why that is. – lasergurge Dec 15 '20 at 18:09
  • "This is usually something you’ll hear from native English speakers who have studied a foreign language (probably not yours, and probably long ago) and therefore understand how difficult it is and appreciate how much effort you’ve obviously put into learning ours." Is that not enough? – fev Dec 15 '20 at 18:15
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Rather neutral: Is it just a neutral phrase of politeness meaning "Do not worry, I try my best to understand you"?

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I use this joke (and it is meant as a joke, I'm 100% certain) all the time--let me elaborate a bit.

What I am trying to do with the foreign speaker is put them at ease. The meaning is,

You have no need to apologize at all--I know nothing of your language, and I am impressed by your ability to communicate in my language. I don't feel like your knowledge is inadequate; if anyone should feel inadequate, it's me, because I haven't done the work you have to communicate in a foreign language.

It's meant to be a compliment and to encourage you to relax and keep trying and know you will not be judged.

[Note: I upgraded this from comment to response as was kindly recommended to me]

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