Mother Tongue

by Amy Tan

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What is the context of “Mother Tongue”? What is the author's purpose, style, and tone in the story?

“Context” refers to the larger frame of reference into which a text fits. It includes additional biographical information about the author, such as family composition, race, ethnicity, or gender. Context also concerns the broader situation of a particular event, such as how a single conversation between characters fits within a long-term relationship. The immediate context for this essay about Tan’s mother’s use of English is her Chinese heritage, and the broader context includes immigration and second-language acquisition.

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The term “context” can apply to any elements that are relevant to a text that are not thoroughly developed within the text. Knowing the context often provides clues to interpretation of important aspects of the text or to the author’s intended meaning. The context of a personal essay, such as “Mother Tongue,” often encompasses further biographical information about the author. Relevant information could be the author’s family members; aspects of personal identity such as race, ethnicity, or gender; or their age. In this essay, Amy Tan explicitly connects the topic of speaking English to her mother’s situation. A broader personal context might include additional information about her childhood growing up with a Chinese-born mother or the influence of her education on her writing.

Another aspect of context is thematic. In this case, Tan explores second language use by focusing on her mother’s use of English as filtered through her prior knowledge of Chinese. A fuller context for understanding how the mother speaks English could include information about her earlier life in China. Looking at an ever broader context, the reader might consider all Chinese American immigrants of the mother’s generation, or the relationship between immigration and second language acquisition for other nationalities at the same time.

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