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: 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...
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