I had to transcribe an MOE interview some years ago for some money – times were hard; but that’s another story – and I got stuck on this phrase. The interview sounded slightly muffled thanks to the poor recording quality, and the interviewer was not the most articulate person, but for the most part it was manageable until the interviewer went all lexically-innovative and used this phrase: “land-bush thing”. So after repeating the audio segment for the 60th time, I finally figured out what it was – “language thing” (Don’t even get me started on how such informal phrasing made it into the interview. It was one of the NUS Sociology professors being interviewed what’s more). This sparked off furious conversations the next day with my friends, who were also doing transcriptions, along the lines of “the appalling state of English in Singapore”, “people talk like that how to work in MOE” and “liddat I oso can do interview already”.
Obviously there is some hierarchy of language and register being discussed in our conversations, as Fanon seems to suggest is present with the issue of languages. And certainly Singaporeans have some idea of what good English is like, more often than not tinged with the image of an European seated behind a desk shot at mid-length discussing the probability of rain over the next seven days. But do we take on a culture in speaking another language? I have friends who learn French (they’ll tell you I’m jealous about not understanding it hence I pretend to. Don’t believe them. Je comprend.), but I can tell for sure they aren’t French. And how is it that Fanon does not seem to take into account the power that the colonized can have in adapting the colonizers language? I suppose language and identity will always be debated points, but what Fanon’s article has prompted me to think is that they might be linked, but do not necessarily have to be viewed as reinforcing each other. People don’t become French by travelling to Alliance Francaise twice a week; nor do we become Chinese or Malay or Indian by speaking the respective languages. As for myself, as sure as I sit in my HDB flat, have served NS, and carry my pink IC, I know what I am.