Mother Tongue

by Amy Tan
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In "Mother Tongue," Amy Tan explains that she uses multiple "Englishes" in her daily life. What is your response to Amy Tan's point about the value of different languages?

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This question is asking you to make a very personal response or connection to the text, so your answer will be shaped by your own experiences and opinions. A number of answers are acceptable as long as they are rooted in an accurate understanding of Tan's message. One underlying message of Tan's essay has to do with the concept of "code-switching," the decision to use different dialects and forms of English when a person is in different settings. For instance, a teenager will speak differently to their friends than to a teacher. Someone might speak at home in a dialect that is specific to their culture or region and then "switch" to speaking standard American English at a job interview. Have you had either of those experiences? Do you speak the same way at home as you do at school? Do you speak the same way with your friends as with an older person or authority figure? Do you see the different types of language you speak (home language, dialect, slang, and so on) as part of your identity? Do you know people with an identity that seems to be intertwined with the way they naturally speak or by the type of speech they have adopted within a certain youth subculture? If so, you can draw on those experiences to shape your personal reaction to the text and your response to this question.

In "Mother Tongue," Tan describes how her mother's way of speaking in her second language is often referred to as "broken" English, and she says that many native English speakers interacting with her mother might not understand what she says very well and assume that her mother does not understand very much of what she hears in English either. However, this is not true. Her mother understands English very well. However, because of the way outsiders viewed her mother's language, Tan grew up thinking that the kind of English she spoke and heard at home was inferior to the standard English she used in other settings. Through reflection, she has learned that her mother's style of English is not inferior; it is just different, and it has its own uses and its own beauty. She understands language as being an integral part of her identity. Think about your own experiences and observations in formulating your response. A good starting place might be to think about whether or not Amy Tan's experience with language reflects anything about your own experiences. You should also reflect on whether or not you agree with her that language shapes our identity and that each dialect has different uses and roles, thereby proving that certain dialects cannot be considered inferior or superior to another.

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Your answer to this question will depend on your own perception of language and whether language should be changed according to audience. Amy Tan, according to her essay, believes that language can be altered based on context. When she is speaking in front of a large audience, for example, her language is characterized by "forms of standard English that (she) had learned in school and through books." The kind of English she uses with her mother, however, is much different and more like the kind of English her own mother speaks, which she describes as "'broken'" or "'fractured.'" She argues that this does not make her mother's language inferior. In fact, Tan values it as "the language that helped shape the way (she) saw things, expressed things, made sense of the world." Tan feels that, though her mother's language might seem confusing or inferior to those who may not be familiar with it, it connects Tan to her past and isn't a true indicator of her mother's ability to understand English.

Tan's argument centers around the idea that different audiences will be more receptive to different kinds of language, so as a speaker she alters her language to cater to that audience. Some might disagree with this argument, saying that a person shouldn't have to alter his or her language to cater to an audience- that the audience is responsible for making the effort to understand the speaker. Others might say that a person should always use "correct" English and never revert back to his or her "mother tongue" because it isn't accepted by society. Again, your answer to this question will depend on your personal opinion about language.

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