Mother Tongue

by Amy Tan
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Who is the intended audience for "Mother Tongue"?

The intended audience of Amy Tan's essay "Mother Tongue" is the people who criticize and judge Tan's mother's version of spoken English. Tan uses the essay to convince her audience that her mother's version of English communicates effectively and is a powerful language.

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Amy Tan's essayMother Tongue” can appeal to a broad audience, but it is also geared toward a particular subset of that audience. Broadly speaking, Tan writes her essay for anyone interested in language and how it is used. This might include everyone from linguistic scholars who study language and its usage professionally to people who speak more than one language at home to individuals simply fascinated by words and sentences.

Tan does, however, appear to speak directly to a narrower audience—namely those who believe that there is only one English language. This is simply not true, according to Tan. In fact, there are many different “Englishes”—some formal, others informal, some conforming to a “standard” English, others going off in their own direction. All of these various “Englishes” still communicate people's ideas and meanings, and as such, the speakers of all of these “Englishes” should be respected.

Tan focuses particularly on the idea of respect, especially when she describes how her mother's “broken” or “limited” English often led others to believe that her mother was stupid or beneath their notice. Yet her mother is a highly intelligent woman who merely speaks English only as a second language. Her ideas are creative, valid, interesting, and valuable, even if her English doesn't always express them in the way other people might expect or label as “normal.” Tan, therefore, is also writing to anyone who might be inclined to judge others by their use of language and is encouraging them to look beyond the words to the people and ideas behind them.

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The audience for Amy Tan's "Mother Tongue" is very wide. It includes people like the pedantic college student Tan used to be, people like her mother who speak English as a second language, and anyone who insists that there is a single form of correct English with no scope for variation.

Tan writes that she used to be embarrassed by her mother's "broken English." Now, however, she dislikes the term "broken English" because it fails to capture the colorful, forceful nature of her mother's speech, which she finds so useful that she herself employs it in everyday conversation with her Anglophone husband. It was when she became a writer that Tan realized the absurdity of writing a novel about mothers and daughters which her own mother could not read. Therefore, she is addressing not only people like her former self, who fail to see the virtues of her mother's way of speaking, but people like her mother, who would normally be hesitant about reading in English.

The essay is also addressed more generally to those who pedantically cling to a single form of English, failing to appreciate the richness and diversity of "world Englishes" and regarding those who communicate in a different way as ignorant. Tan emphasizes her mother's intelligence and the blinkered attitude of those who judge her mental capacities by her grammar in order to show the narrow-mindedness of such linguistic prejudice.

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I would argue that this thought-provoking essay is intended to be read by those who would insist upon the use of what is known as "the Queen's English."

One of Tan's primary points is the fact that the existence of a single "perfect" version of the English language is a myth. Thanks to the fact that English, like all languages, is evolving on an ongoing basis, there can be no single correct interpretation of the language. When you add to this the fact that numerous cultures had English forced on them by colonists, it becomes clear that there are a variety of what Tan calls "Englishes."

Tan also makes the point that what may be construed in certain circles as "broken English" or "limited English" may merely be linguistic choices. She explains that while her mother speaks in a manner which would be considered imperfect, she can read English novels and the Forbes report with no difficulty.

I would argue that this essay is also intended to be an encouragement for students who are pushed away from the arts and towards the sciences due to their perceived struggles in English. Tan bucked this trend and insisted upon studying the arts, and as the author of the well-loved novel The Joy Luck Club, she provides a shining example to all Asian Americans interested in becoming writers.

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Amy Tan’s essay “Mother Tongue” is about Tan’s experiences with different types of English. She mainly focuses on her mother’s “broken” or “limited” English that impacted her own understanding of the English language as a student and writer. This essay is written from a first-person perspective and is directed towards people who would judge Asian Americans based on their version of spoken English. Tan stresses that her mother’s version of spoken English is not a better or worse language than the grammatically "perfect" English that is expected of language learners.

At the start of the essay, Tan defines her perspective. She writes,

I spend a great deal of my time thinking about the power of language—the way it can evoke an emotion, a visual image, a complex idea, or a simple truth. Language is the tool of my trade.

Tan views English and language in general to be a tool that can be wielded. Her mother’s English contains “her intent, her passion, her imagery, the rhythms of her speech and the nature of her thoughts.” Therefore, Tan spends the essay exploring the power behind her mother’s version of spoken English, which is perceived as “broken”.

With this essay, Tan wants to convince those who judge her mother’s English, including herself, that there is power in this version of the language. Although her mother’s English may not follow every grammatical rule, it does communicate what it is intended to communicate and does so in the way that her mother intends. Tan wants the readers of this essay to realize that her mother’s English, Tan’s “mother tongue,” is a valuable method of communication.

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