Mother Tongue

by Amy Tan

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Code-switching and the Power of Multiple Englishes

Although she does not use the term, Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” is a classic description of code-switching, the practice of switching between different languages, dialects, styles, or registers according to the situation and people being addressed. Tan writes early in “Mother Tongue” that as a writer, language is the tool of her trade, and she has learned to use all of the Englishes she grew up with to enrich her work.

At school, she learned standard English, which she uses in formal situations and which she used exclusively when she started writing fiction. With her mother, however, she has always used a different form of English, more direct and expressive, often ignoring the grammatical rules of standard English. Tan says that she was recently talking to her mother about buying furniture and found herself saying, “Not waste money that way.” Although her husband, who regularly hears Tan speak standard English in other situations, was with them, neither he nor Tan noticed any switch in her English. Tan then realized why this was:

It’s because over the twenty years we’ve been together I’ve often used that same kind of English with him, and sometimes he even uses it with me. It has become our language of intimacy, a different sort of English that relates to family talk, the language I grew up with.

Tan says that she did not particularly enjoy or excel in English classes at school, since the exercises she had to complete seemed banal and boring to her, their predictability at odds with the color and vibrancy of her mother’s idiosyncratic English. At the same time, she was ashamed of what she saw as her mother’s “broken” English, a term she now dislikes because it implies that her mother’s English needs to be fixed, “as if it lacked a certain wholeness and soundness.” Because of this embarrassment, Tan rejected her mother’s style of speech and, when she first became a writer, tried to write exclusively in the formal English she had learned at school and college. This changed when her writing about mothers made her think that she should write a book her own mother could read. Tan’s mother read the early drafts of her work and she came to see that using all the different Englishes at her disposal strengthened her as a writer. She knew she had succeeded when her mother gave the verdict on her book: “So easy to read.”

Linguistic Discrimination and Prejudice

Amy Tan admits that while she was growing up, she was often ashamed of her mother’s way of speaking English, particularly in public settings. She gives two examples of the ways in which American society prejudges non-native speakers of English. Both examples illustrate that her mother internalized the prejudice against the way she spoke and “realized the limitations of her English.”

In the first instance, Tan pretended to be her mother in a telephone conversation with a stockbroker who had failed to send a check on time. When the matter was not resolved, the two of them visited the stockbroker in his New York offices, and he was astonished to hear his actual client “shouting at his boss in her impeccable broken English.” Tan observes that her mother is a woman of considerable financial acumen—she listens to Wall Street Week and reads the Forbes report—but her way of speaking English leads others to underestimate her.

The second instance of discrimination occurred just a few days before Tan wrote the essay. Tan’s mother had gone to the hospital to find out about a benign brain...

(This entire section contains 937 words.)

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tumor that a CAT scan had recently revealed—only to discover that the hospital had lost the scan. No one at the hospital apologized or showed any sympathy, even when she explained that she was particularly anxious to know the diagnosis because her husband and son had both died of brain tumors. Finally, she insisted that the doctor call her daughter. As soon as he heard Tan’s perfect English, the doctor apologized and promised to take immediate action to locate the CAT scan. Even in such a vital matter, Tan’s ability to speak standard English made all the difference in her mother’s treatment.

The Tensions and Bonds Between Mothers and Daughters

The relationships between immigrant mothers and their daughters constitute a central subject of The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan’s first novel. In “Mother Tongue,” Tan traces the genesis of the novel, acknowledging the influence of her relationship with her own mother. Tan describes how in her youth she often felt ashamed of her mother because of her idiosyncratic English and her limited ability to communicate in much of society. This exacerbated the usual rift that occurs between teenagers and their parents. While many teenagers are torn between the world of the family and the world at large, Tan in her youth was also torn between the culture and speech of her family and the culture and speech of American society.

Although Tan grew up listening to her mother’s English and speaking it at home, it was not until adulthood that she came to value it. Guided by her curiosity as a writer, Tan began to appreciate the linguistic gift her mother gave her and even use it in her work. Tan’s reevaluation of her mother’s English also marks a deepened appreciation for her mother more generally. Tan admires her mother’s intelligence and strong personality, and she draws upon her as an inspiration for her writing.