Mother Tongue

by Amy Tan

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Amy Tan begins “Mother Tongue,” her essay about writing in English, with a disclaimer:

I am not a scholar of English or literature. I cannot give you much more than personal opinions on the English language and its variations in this country or others.

With this, Tan immediately challenges the idea of a language as a monolith and subtly draws the reader’s attention to the fact that all opinions on a language are indeed “personal.” Languages, like cultures, are constantly evolving entities, shaped by forces both particular and universal. This is especially true of a language like English, which many have been forced to adopt by the process of colonization. A single, perfect English is a myth, which is why Tan uses “all the Englishes I grew up with” in her writing. In asserting the multiplicity of Englishes, Tan also lays the groundwork for her subsequent dispelling of discriminatory notions like “broken” English.

Tan's attention is drawn to the multiplicity of her Englishes by her mother’s presence at a talk Tan gives on her writing. While talking in jargon-loaded English, Tan is suddenly made aware of its departure from the English she and her mother use at home. The structure of the English of her present talk, “burdened . . . with nominalized forms, past perfect tenses, conditional phrases,” is far removed from the English of her “family talk.” Tan recalls a conversation with her mother about buying furniture in which she exhorted her mother:

Not waste money that way.

To an outsider, this may sound like a strange English, but for Tan, her husband, and her mother, this English is the language of intimacy, every bit as precise as the language which wields phrases like “the intersection of memory upon imagination.”

In order to establish the variance of English even in the same family, Tan goes on to quote verbatim a videotaped bit of dialogue from her mother. In the excerpt, Tan’s mother talks about a political gangster in Shanghai with the same last name as her family’s, Du. The gangster wished to be adopted by her mother’s family, who were initially richer than him. Gradually, he rose to prominence, becoming far richer than the Du family, a “now important person.” Yet he treated them well, showing up at Tan’s mother’s wedding as a mark of respect. This story is told by Tan’s mother in an English that adapts itself to the uniquely Chinese milieu.

Chinese way, came only to show respect, don't stay for dinner. Respect for making big celebration, he shows up. Mean gives lots of respect. Chinese custom. Chinese social life that way.

Now, while someone may be mistaken into thinking that the older Ms. Tan has “limited” English, Tan explains that, on the contrary, her mother reads the Forbes report and books by Shirley MacLaine with ease. Through this point, Tan again shakes up the reader’s notions about linguistic fluency. Though her mother’s English is not comprehensible to all of Tan’s friends, to Tan it is “perfectly clear.” Here, Tan alludes to the concept of the “mother tongue”: a child’s earliest language, often used with a primary caregiver, who in many instances is the mother. The mother tongue shapes cognition itself, since it is the language through which the child begins to view the world.

Although Tan is now proud of her mother tongue, she reveals the reason behind her defensiveness about its supposed imperfection. Tan winces when Englishes like her mother’s are described as “broken,” because growing up, she herself was ashamed of her mother tongue. Tan makes an important observation in this context:...

(This entire section contains 1232 words.)

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because her mother’s use of English was deemed imperfect, the implication was that her mother’s thoughts were imperfect too. Thus, Tan understands the common tendency to assume that the different use of a language implies poor cognition. Based on the way people treated her mother, Tan also began to think her mother lacked something crucial.

And I had plenty of empirical evidence to support me: the fact 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.

Here, Tan reveals the daily difficulties immigrants face in a society which has rigid notions of native and non-native speakers, of “our” English” as opposed to “their” English.

In the final third of the essay, Tan explores how her mother’s language has shaped the trajectory of her own writing in English. Since Tan grew up in a house with an English that diverted from the mainstream, she struggled to navigate the way English was taught in school. Though she scored well enough in English, getting “mostly Bs,” she did better in subjects such as math, in which questions usually have “one correct answer.” Thus, the disparity in her scores led her to believe that her natural aptitude lay in math and science, rather than English and writing.

In this context, Tan discusses the structure of test questions in English. Often, these questions are in the form of fill-in-the-blank sentences or analogies, which assume all test-takers have a universal experience. For instance, a question like “Even though Tom was —, Mary thought he was —” assumes a “bland,” binary set of answers, such as “Even though Tom was shy, Mary thought he was charming.” However, for someone whose English does not follow these binaries, the answers can be unlimited, such as “Even though Tom was foolish, Mary thought he was ridiculous.” Test-graders would mark such a non-binary answer “wrong,” but to Tan as a teenager, such an answer made perfect sense.

Discouraged by her grades in English, Tan enrolled in pre-med studies in college. Tan suspects that, like she initially was, many promising Asian American writers are forced into the sciences because they believe they are not good at English. Anxiety about the brokenness of their English, a poorly-designed testing system, and teachers who steer them “towards the sciences” ensure that fewer Asian Americans make a career in writing.

However, in Tan’s case, her innate rebelliousness overpowered the limitations set on her. She switched to an English major and started writing nonfiction "after I was told by my former boss that writing was my worst skill.”

Yet Tan’s breakthrough into fiction did not take place till 1985, when she began writing the stories that were to form The Joy Luck Club (1989). Writing with a chip on her shoulder, Tan first wanted to focus on crafted, technically perfect sentences, as if to prove that she had finally mastered English. Yet, her writing felt hollow, stilted. It was only when she began to write for an ideal reader that her stories began to flow. This ideal reader, is of course, her mother.

Tan does not fully explain why she chose her mother as her ideal reader, but undoubtedly one of the reasons is her mother’s ability to understand the multiplicity of Tan’s Englishes. Tan has the epiphany that her writing can only be complete when it embraces all her languages—and thus, all her selves. In this manner, the very “limited” and "broken" nature of her mother tongue ends up infinitely enriching Tan’s writing.

I began to write stories using all the Englishes I grew up with . . .