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Amy Tan Essays Mother Tongue

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Amy Tan's "Mother Tongue": The Purpose And Power Of Language




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From Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” (76-81), it is evident that language has an effect on our lives. Language defines the type of person I am generally and it has had an effect on my choices as well as my lifestyle. Language has become my way of seeing life in a different perspective. In “Mother Tongue,” Amy Tan discusses the many ways in which the language that she was taught affected her life. I can definitely relate to Tan’s essay because I too came from a bilingual home. Like Amy Tan, I have intelligent immigrant parents and I am their main avenue of communication with people who don’t understand them. I believe the main idea of Tan’s “Mother Tongue” is to stress that just because someone cannot speak the English language to perfection, that does not in any way make them less intelligent than someone who is born in this country and understands and speaks English fluently. However, what makes us different is that it is rare to find two people who speak the exact same English. Although Tan and I both helped our parents and came from non-traditional homes, Tan came from a Chinese family while I came from an Albanian family. We both had similar ideas about language playing a major role in our families, and it was also a big challenge for both of us while we were raised by immigrant parents who spoke “limited English” (Tan, 78).

The first reason I can relate to Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” essay is that I am also not a natural-born citizen of the USA. I, too, have parents who have their own way of speaking and understanding the English language. Another reason is how similar her personal stories are to mine; they remind me of my very own memories with my parents, who are both bright and intelligent individuals. I have been my parents' translator for as long as I can remember. Amy Tan states that “like others, I have described it to people as 'broken' or 'fractured' English" (Tan, 78). Having to constantly be present for an appointment with my parents always made me wonder how other people viewed my parents. Did they think them inferior or not educated? I have to admit, having to be there was annoying, if not embarrassing. I felt it was my duty to help them out. I would imagine that if the situation were reversed, they would, with no doubt in my mind, help me the same way I have assisted them.

For Tan and myself, language is very special. It brings us closer to our family and is something that is unique for both of us. Early in her essay “Mother Tongue,” Amy Tan discusses this power of language. She writes, “it can evoke an emotion, a visual image, a complex idea, or a simple truth” (76). Recently, I had an experience with language deprivation when I had laryngitis. The three days I was without my voice were frustrating, interminable, and evidence of the power and purpose of language. Though at times I could whisper, people had difficulty hearing and understanding me, and I couldn't write my thoughts down quickly enough to meaningfully converse with others. In short, my lack of voice impaired my ability to express myself and to communicate and indeed participate in my world. Moreover, language, the combination of specific words in a particular order, not only empowers individuals to participate as members of a designated community, it is also a fundamental key in enabling individuals to establish and define the dimensions of their identity.

Indeed, just as language can be the glue that binds individuals into a community, language is a double-edged sword that also bears the power to alienate an individual from a community or at the very least identify him or her as an outsider. One example which relates to Amy Tan’s mother and comes to my mind is the story of Alessia, a little girl who was in my third-grade class. Alessia was Italian, and she didn't speak much Albanian. I doubt she knew or understood more than a handful of Albanian words. Day after day, Alessia sat in our class, not understanding what the teacher was saying. Alessia was in our little community of third graders, but she wasn't really a part of it. Though the other children weren't particularly cruel to her, neither did they include her. Why? They didn't know how to communicate with her. As a child, I didn't think about it, but certainly this little eight-year-old child was overwhelmed by the incomprehensible barrage of Albanian words being hurled at her. She was frustrated that she had something to say but had no voice with which to say it, and she was lonely because she was isolated from those who shared a common language.

Not only can language articulate a simple truth, one's command of it demonstrates a simple truth: without language, one is voiceless, with imperfect language, one is perceived as imperfect, and with standard language, one is superior, at least from the perspectives of those who possess the standard command of language. Tan also examines this relationship of language to acceptance in a dominant community in “ Mother Tongue” (78). She goes on to give countless examples of this truth in action when she writes about how her mother was treated: “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” (Tan, 78). Why did they treat Mrs.Tan in such a disrespectful manner? For the sole reason that she spoke a simple, non-native variation of English, derogatorily referred to as “broken” or “fractured” English (Tan, 78). Indeed, this is the power of language: without standard language skills, one is identified as an outsider, often inaccurately perceived and unfairly discriminated against.

Identification with and acceptance in a community is not the only result of language acquisition. Tan and I both experience an unbreakable link between language and individuality. In other words, our experience with language shapes our sense of self-identity. Tan writes of the different Englishes she uses. Chiefly, she distinguishes between the simple form of English she speaks with her family and the more complex version of the language she uses in her personal life. Though there was a time when Tan was embarrassed by her mother’s English, she now sees things from a different perspective. She writes, “my mother's English is perfectly clear. ... It's my mother tongue. Her language, as I hear it, is vivid, direct, full of observation and imagery. That was the language that helped shape the way I saw things, expressed things, made sense of the world" (Tan, 78). The language that she once perceived as inferior, sub-standard, or broken, she now views as intimate, special, and representative of her mother's beautiful and insightful expression of herself and view of the world, which Mrs.Tan, in turn, taught her daughter. Her point is well taken.

Another difference with Tan is that she is a native-born citizen while I am not. When I first came to America, I personally experienced the hardship of communicating with others, although English had been taught in Albania. It was difficult for me at first to speak English and look for friends. I was extremely shy speaking English, afraid of making mistakes. I was scared that people might not understand me and get confused about what I meant; but as time passed by, I learned to adopt the culture of speaking English. It was hard at first accepting English as a second language, but I am more comfortable with it now. Tan excelled in math and science but she tended to have a hard time getting good grades in English. It is important for Tan to claim her mother's English because it was a challenge to her but helped her achieve her command of proper English, and she is a writer now. Using “simple English” (80), Tan wants to share a message with those who don't speak English well. She wants to share the message that even if you have a hard time speaking English, your point of view is still important. It is also clear that Tan’s mother helped her understood English in a different, unique way, and that is the language Tan uses today. Blocking out the critics, she knew it was important when her mother approved her book by saying "So easy to read" (Tan, 81).

Even if we are not multilingual, do we not all have a different mother tongue taught to us as children which has unconsciously shaped the way we see ourselves and our world? And do we not all speak our own different Englishes, calling upon them as the occasion and audience direct? Certainly, the language I call upon in a meeting with the president of the university differs from the language that I use with my colleagues, which is different from the language I speak with my friends or family, which differs from the language I use with my daughter. It may be a matter of word choice or intonation or slang or content or purpose, but each is a different part of my self and my world.

Language is many things: the arrangement of words in a particular order, uttered in a certain way, denoting a certain meaning; it is a political instrument which evokes images and motion. Certainly, all of this is a description of the purpose and function of language. But as its most fundamental, language is quite simply the expression of self and the ability to share that expression with others. The learning of one's mother tongue will provide an individual the right to study their culture and will also preserve family bonds and lessen cultural conflicts between generations. Tan and I both want to highlight the importance of language: to be without language is to be voiceless, and to be voiceless is to silence the song of the self. [Barolli]

Submitted by: ola

Tagged...Amy Tan Essay, Mother Tongue Essay, Essay on Mother Tongue



Unlike most of the other literature you’ve read for class, “Mother Tongue” by Amy Tan is short and pretty easy to breeze through. But now you have to do a literary analysis on it–and suddenly its short length seems like more of a burden than a blessing.

Fortunately, there are several different literary devices you can concentrate on for your literary analysis. I am going to show you a few of these devices and give you some awesome tips on how to incorporate them into your analysis of “Mother Tongue.”

Symbolism in “Mother Tongue” by Amy Tan

Image by Steve Johnson via flickr

Symbolism is when an author uses an object, person, or place to represent a deeper concept. Even though language is not an object you can hold, Amy Tan still uses language to symbolize different, more ambiguous concepts.

Tip #1: Think about Tan’s use of different Englishes and what they symbolize for her.

Tan talks about a few different types of English and in what situations she uses them, but each English form symbolizes something different to her.

What we would call “proper English” symbolizes both Tan’s acceptance into American society and a separation from her mother. Tan highlights this dichotomy when she writes about giving her speech, saying the “proper English” words that she was using felt strange to say when her mother was in the room.

Tan says she uses “simple English” around her mother, and while this isn’t the same form that her mother speaks, it symbolizes the bond between her and her family. She says even her husband started speaking this kind of English together and that it has come to represent intimacy.

Tip #2: Write about Tan’s mother’s use of English and what it symbolizes.

Tan is very attached to her mother’s English to the point that she doesn’t want to refer to it as “broken.” To her it symbolizes home because it’s the English she grew up with. She says it provides imagery and emotions that standard, grammatically-correct English cannot.

However, Tan’s mother’s English also symbolizes the limitations of immigrants in America and the challenges they have to face to be accepted. She alludes to several instances where people, even a doctor, would not take her mother seriously because of the way she spoke.

Structure in “Mother Tongue” by Amy Tan

Every piece of literature, whether it’s an epic novel or a haiku, has some sort of structure–which is simply the organization of the material.

Tip #3: Even though “Mother Tongue”is a short story, analyze its plot or progression.

I hesitate to use the word “plot” in the case of “Mother Tongue” because it doesn’t seem to have much of one, at least not in the traditional sense that most fiction stories do. But it does have a loose progression.

Tan talks about growing up with different forms of English and how that affected both her childhood and adult life. She talks about the challenges her mother faced with her “limited” English. Finally, she wraps it up nicely with a note about how she now uses those various forms of English in her career.

Tip #4: Write about the changing views of Tan on language.

Tan mentions several different emotions when talking about her mother’s English. She goes from being ashamed of her mother’s speaking–feeling that other people will judge her family–to being proud of the rich culture behind her mother’s English.

Tip #5: Think about the essay’s structure and how effective it is for the story itself.

Spend some time evaluating the essay’s structure, and analyze whether it is right for “Mother Tongue.” Would it have been better as a novel or a poem, or is a short narrative the way to go? Does the story feel complete as is? Does it drag on too much? All of these questions will help you pinpoint the essay’s effectiveness.

Tip #6: Explain how Tan’s love of language shows throughout the story.

Near the beginning of “Mother Tongue,” Tan says, “I am fascinated by language in daily life. 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.”

Remember this quote as you read through and relate the rest of the content to this idea.

Tone in “Mother Tongue” by Amy Tan

In literature, tone is the feeling an author conveys to the audience. There can be one tone throughout the entire piece or many different tones. Tan does a great job incorporating several different tones into such a short piece. Now all you have to do is analyze them.

Tip #7: Hone in on the different tones throughout the story, and write about them.

From guilty to gracious, annoyed to appreciative, Amy Tan uses a few different tones throughout “Mother Tongue.” Identify these tones and explain how they are employed (the language used to convey the tones), and what effect it has on the reader.

Tip #8: Analyze the tonal shifts.

Because there are quite a few different tones in this short story, they transition from one to the other. A good literary analysis might explain these transitions, and how they affect the structure of the piece. How do each of these shifts in tone help move the reader along in the story?

Tip #9: Think about the overall tone of “Mother Tongue” and how that tone is created.

Just because there are several tones throughout “Mother Tongue” doesn’t mean that there isn’t one overarching tone. In fact, Tan uses the same tone in the beginning and end of her story–the reader starts at a homebase, sees the journey Tan is leading them on, and returns right back to where they started but with more insight than before.

This progression is typical of many stories, both long and short, but in this case you can apply it to tone as well. Be sure to focus on specific language, punctuation, and imagery used to create the overall tone.

Tip #10: Tan says that she has always been rebellious. Write about how this shows in the tone of her writing.

When writing about becoming an English major in college, Tan said that she had always been rebellious. How does she use language in the rest of her story to portray this rebelliousness?

(Hint: Think about how she defies modern language standards and refuses to call her mother’s language “broken” or “limited” without putting those terms in quotation marks.)

Final Thoughts on “Mother Tongue” by Amy Tan

Image by Gideon Tsang via Wikimedia Commons

Though “Mother Tongue” is a very short narrative, it’s rich in content. Symbolism, structure, and tone are only a few literary devices you can use for your analysis, but they are the ones that’ll help you get the most out of your analysis.

It’s not about how long a story is, but rather about its content.

To see how other students have handled their analyses, check out these example essays on “Mother Tongue.”

MLA Citation for “Mother Tongue” by Amy Tan

Tan, Amy. “Mother Tongue.” The McGraw Hill Reader: Issues Across the Disciplines. 10th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008. 62-67. Print.

Hopefully this list leaves you feeling like you’re no longer short on ideas for your analysis of this short story. After you’ve written your literary analysis, and you don’t feel very confident in it, pass it along to one of the Kibin editors. They’ll help you make Amy Tan proud by assisting with proper language and other editing.

Good luck!

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