Languages, Native and Learned

In Paris last spring, my friend took me to a bookstore called Présence Africaine. Named for the African studies magazine and publishing house that owns it, it is tucked away on an unassuming corner in the Latin Quarter. (I had been expecting, as she had said, a “library”—but it turned out that, having just walked out of a French class, she had confused the French word “librarie” for the English “library.”) In a corner of the store, I struggled to decipher the first pages of “Black Skin, White Masks” in Frantz Fanon’s original French. Fanon starts with a description of the black man who visits the colonial “métropole” France. “The black man has two dimensions,” Fanon writes. On the one hand, he will be treated as a “demigod” among his compatriots if he knows France, if he speaks “French French,” and if he can talk about what he saw in Paris. On the other, in his interactions with Europeans, he will be ever-so-vigilant not to slip up and reveal his accent. The colonized, he writes, “is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s culture standards,” not least the language—and the right and respectable way of speaking that language, namely unaccented, proper European. “To speak,” he says on the importance of language, “means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization.”

How is learning a language akin to supporting the weight of a civilization? According to Fanon, language is a “cultural tool”—its mastery promises upward mobility, but premises a perverse denial of self. This bargain reveals itself when you realize the effort it takes to master someone else’s tongue as if it is your own. Supposedly, anybody can learn a language. You might even expect that mastery of its grammar and vocabulary will grant you insider status. Or, understanding that language is subtler than that, you might think that perfecting your accent, understanding cultural references, and wearing the right clothes might give you an “in.” Here, “language” can refer to more than its literal meaning: How do speech and writing change to adapt to environments of business? Academia? At Harvard? The burden of adapting typically falls on the individual, rather than the environment. Think of an immigrant in a foreign country, struggling to integrate, or even a Harvard junior mirroring the mannerisms of a finance recruiter.

Standing in line in the airport in Rome, en route to Paris, I noticed a group of American boys who looked about my age. They noticed that they were some of the few people in line not speaking French, because in their Greek-lettered hoodies and conspicuous voices they joked to themselves “oui,” “non,” and “I don’t speak French.” During my time in Europe, people noticed that I was different without my having to announce it to them. Even as I stayed out of the way and even gave my best attempt at speaking French (from years of study), people called me “nihao” and “konnichiwa.” Worse, they followed me around until I had to hide in stores and flip them off from within, and harassing my friend and me to the point that we found alternate routes home. Smaller incidents too—someone asked me three times if I really did speak French, then finally said, “Wow, good for you!” before still handing me the English menu.

Of course, Frantz Fanon was writing about black people in the colonial context. He was writing about the experiences of the colonial subject, who faced harsher restrictions on upward mobility. I enjoy the privileges of a student at an elite university. But his writings tell me something I often wonder about. Try as you might, you still may not successfully integrate, even after learning the language. “Talking the talk and walking the walk” is not an ultimate solution. Fanon talks about phenomena that I, and many who identify as minorities, experience on a daily basis. As Fanon observed in 1952—and as is true even today—people ask, “How long have you been in France? You speak French so well.” Even when you are saying everything right—not only pronouncing and spelling words right, but also referring to the right films and books—you are plagued by the doubt that something might “give you away.” My parents applaud my mastery of the English language because it opens up opportunities unknown to them. If this is true, what still troubles me is that when we go anywhere as a family, people will always, ever so minutely—almost unnoticeably—slow their speech to speak to us.



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