There is a clear hierarchy of languages revealed in Fanon’s ‘Black Skin, White Masks’. When he tells of the Antilleans’ desire to learn French French (as if there was a definitive dialect), even as Senagalese try to speak like native Antilleans, the hierarchy becomes really stark and not a little funny. Sad, perhaps, but funny nonetheless.
But this hierarchy is not about the beauty of language alone, but more to do with power — what it connotes, with regards to one’s origins. This is why Germans or Russians who speak bad French, while maybe derided, still are given respect: it’s because their country, be it military might, culture, are respected. Not so for the Africans.
But where does that leave us? Language, as Fanon talks about, is alienating all around, for the colonised individual, whether he speaks French French or creole. Fanon himself seems to have no solution, for he ends the essay elliptically…
The hierarchy remains, today. The languages I would like to learn, in order, is this: French, Spanish, Italian. Why not Malay, or Vietnamese? Not simply because the former are more exotic, or immediately useful in my Singaporean context, that’s for sure. And we assess people on their proficiency in English for sure: and why else does the British accent hold such awe for us?
But I want to suggest that in some ways, all isn’t as Fanon sees it — it’s not ALL about national or ethnic identity. If we see linguistic prowess as a skill, it should not be surprising that people are impressed by skilful users of language. And some skills are just naturally more sought after, even if they are not pragmatically useful; for example, piano-playing, ballet, archery, oh, and, golf? This hierarchy of desirability obtains from another mode of value-giving, I think. The first two might be considered artistic (thus ‘good’) and the latter, well, I honestly, don’t know!