Mother Tongue

by Amy Tan

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 589

Amy Tan

Amy Tan is the author of the personal essay “Mother Tongue.” Tan, a fiction writer, addresses the extent to which she engages in code-switching, using different types of English in different situations. She first grasps the breadth of her code-switching when her mother attends a talk she is giving on the subject of her writing. Tan recognizes a dissonance: her public and professional language is elaborate, mannered, and often abstract, whereas her conversations with her mother are informal and expressive, replete with technical inaccuracies.

When Amy Tan was at school, her language skills were judged as adequate but mediocre. She struggled with the narrowness and emptiness of conventional linguistic associations, especially when compared to her mother’s colorful, expansive approach to language. Like many Asian American students, she says, she was directed away from language-based subjects and towards the sciences by her teachers, who feared she would be at a disadvantage in English. However, her rebellious nature led her to switch from pre-med to English during her first year in college.

When she first began to write fiction, Amy Tan employed a highly wrought version of English as far as possible from the way in which her mother spoke. However, when she started to write about mothers as her main characters in The Joy Luck Club, she envisioned her own mother reading her stories and brought into her writing all of the varieties of English with which she grew up. She knew she had succeeded in capturing the nuance and color of her mother’s speech when Mrs. Tan gave her verdict on her first book: “So easy to read.”

Amy Tan’s Mother

Amy Tan’s mother, who goes by Mrs. Tan, is arguably the central character of the essay. Her idiosyncratic English represents a counterpoint to Amy’s polished, professional English. Mrs. Tan understands English very well and is easily able to study the Forbes report, read the books of Shirley MacLaine, and listen to Wall Street Week on the radio. However, since English is not her mother tongue, she speaks a version of the language that Tan hesitantly calls “broken.” Some of Tan’s friends say they understand 80-90% of what her mother says, others about 50%, and others none at all. Yet Tan says she has never had any difficulty understanding her mother’s unconventional English, since it is quite literally her own mother tongue—the language her mother speaks and the language with which she grew up.

Mrs. Tan is highly intelligent and has a forceful personality. Her English prevents many people from understanding her or, in some cases, prioritizing her desires. Mrs. Tan herself understands that her broken English creates a negative perception of her education and intelligence in many people’s minds. For this reason, she often asks Amy to speak for her in an official capacity, as when she needs to communicate with her stockbroker or her doctor.

The Stockbroker

Tan discusses an episode involving Mrs. Tan’s stockbroker. When he fails to send a check in good time, Tan calls him on her mother’s behalf, translating Mrs. Tan’s thoughts into well-modulated standard English for his benefit. When the stockbroker finally meets both Tan and her mother, he is astonished that Tan sits in silent embarrassment while her mother excoriates him for his tardiness. The episode illustrates the linguistic barriers Mrs. Tan often experiences, as well as the vast difference between her true character and the persona she presents to the world when her daughter speaks for her.

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