In her essay “Mother Tongue,” Amy Tan indeed argues that a speaker’s command of a language belies their knowledge, thoughts, and worth. She demonstrates this claim by illustrating that her mother’s “broken” English caused people to dismiss her. Tan’s intended audience are those people who looked down on her mother condescendingly because they could not understand her mother’s words.
Even though her mother speaks English that is not grammatically correct or fluent, Tan understands her words’ meaning. For example, despite speaking “broken” English, her mother successfully communicates how a gangster attended her wedding to pay respects (and the way that event even came about). Tan insists that her
mother's expressive command of English belies how much she actually understands. She reads the Forbes report, listens to Wall Street Week, converses daily with her stockbroker, reads all of Shirley MacLaine's books with ease—all kinds of things I can't begin to understand.
In fact, Tan illustrates how her mother knows that her stockbroker is withholding a check—and how she cleverly finagles a visit to dress down the stockbroker to his boss in person.
Throughout her childhood and as an adult, Tan witnesses how people brush off her mother. She sees that
people in department stores, at banks, and at restaurants did not take her seriously, did not give her good service, pretended not to understand her, or even acted as if they did not hear her.
Even when her mother insists on learning important medical information about herself, such as a benign brain tumor detected by a CAT scan—especially since her husband and son died from brain tumors—she is ignored. The hospital and medical staff show no respect for her knowledge or empathy for her concerns; however, they suddenly change their attitude when fluent-English-speaking Tan speaks up for her mother.
The target audience of Tan’s argument seems to be not only the people who dismissed her mother (e.g., salespeople, restaurant staff, medical workers), but also anyone who may have an implicit bias against non-native English speakers (or a people speaking any language as a second language). Her essay shows readers that their perception and judgment of a person who does not speak a language well may be inaccurate. In fact, the description “limited” English makes Tan think that
everything is limited, including people's perceptions of the limited English speaker.
A non-native speaker’s use of language obscures the full range of the person’s knowledge and thoughts. Tan feels that her mother’s speech is “vivid, direct, full of observation and imagery” and that it demonstrates
her intent, her passion, her imagery, the rhythms of her speech and the nature of her thoughts.
Most importantly, no matter how skillfully a person speaks a language, that person is worthy of respect.