In Mother Tongue, Amy Tan shares her personal experience as an Asian American raised with an immigrant mother that can hardly speak and understand the English language. Tan explains how she had to learn two different forms of the English language: one with simple words that her mother could understand, and the other being more complex English that she uses with her peers. Throughout the short story, Amy Tan explains the unique challenges that she experienced due to her mother’s limited English. For example, Tan explains how she would call businesses and pretend to be her mother, while her mother is in the background explaining what she wants to say.
As a first generation Asian American, I can relate to many of the experiences that Amy Tan describes in Mother Tongue. I was also raised in an Asian American household with two parents that spoke limited English. My mother and father only knew how to communicate using commonly spoken words in the English language, and they frequently spoke with improper grammar, sentence structure, and subject-verb agreements. Similar to Amy Tan, I also had to speak two different forms of the English language: the complex form that I learned through my education and social experiences, as well as the limited English that my parents could understand. I can also relate to how Amy Tan describes her experience in the United States as living in two coexisting worlds. I felt that my social experience at school and in public were significantly different compared to my experiences at home. The key difference was the distinctive forms of language that I used in these two contrasting social settings.
In Mother Tongue, Amy Tan describes herself as a woman that has developed a passion for languages due to her unique social experiences. Tan explains that she does not perceive herself as a scholar of the English language. I found this description to be very fascinating since Tan has produced one of the most popular books in American Literature: The Joy Luck Club. Instead, Tan describes herself as a writer that has always been fascinated by the influence that language has over our lives. Tan explains that language can impact human emotions, translate a visual image, elaborate a complex idea, and communicate universal truths (170). In understanding the impact that language can have on our lives, Amy Tan describes language as a tool that writers use to achieve specific purposes.
Tan then goes on to explain that passion for language stems from the various types of languages that she grew up with. Tan reveals that she speaks a simple form of the English language because her mother had a limited understanding of English. According to Amy Tan, “all the forms of standard English that I had learned in school and through books, the forms of English I did not use at home with my mother” (172). This statement exemplifies how Amy Tan has received proper education about how to construct English language using lingual applications such as conditional phrases, nominalized forms, and past perfect tenses. However, Tan also learned how to communicate effectively with her mother by recognizing the limitations that the mother had about the English language. This caused Tan to feel that she was speaking two different languages: a simple form with her mother and a more advanced form with her peers.
One of the key themes incorporated in Mother Tongue is how language is used as a tool of communication to understand one another. Amy Tan demonstrates this theme by explaining how her mother’s limited English can be difficult for some people to understand, but Amy understands her mother fully because her mother’s broken English is a language that she knows how to speak. According to Amy Tan, “Some say they understand none of [my mother’s English], as if she were speaking pure Chinese. But to me, my mother’s English is perfectly clear, perfectly natural. It’s my mother tongue” (174). When describing how Amy interprets her mother’s broken English, Amy describes it as vivid, direct, and filled with imagery. According to Amy, her mother’s limited English impacted her perception of the world. This exemplifies the powerful role that language plays in shaping our development and perception of reality.
Tan, Amy. “Mother Tongue.” Language Awareness: Readings for College Writers (11th
ed.) Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016. pp. 170-176.
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