Amy Tan’s “mother tongue” is a narrative essay initially delivered as a speech during a symposium “the state of the language” in 1989. Later on, in 1990, The Threepenny Review published the article. It has, since then, had a successful journey, having won remarkable honors and awards. In 1991, it was nominated for the year’s Best American Essays. In the essay, Tan describes her experience and how she relates with the “different Englishes.” In the initial sections of the essay, she describes her mother’s English and its impacts. Her mother, who is a Chinese immigrant, constantly depended on Tan to communicate in good English. She also contrasts the variations of English she uses, ranging from the one she uses with her husband, with her mother to the academic, formal English. She emphasizes her love for language and how she struggled to find success. In the final sections of the essay, Tan explains the difficulties she experiences due to her mother’s lack of fluency in English, including social and interpersonal limitations. She states, however, that these challenges offered her an opportunity to view the world from a positively different perspective.
An individual’s mastery and articulation of language determine their life and career choices. In today’s xenophobic society, people lacking English fluency, such as immigrants, are always misjudged, and their opinions and ideas are often disregarded. People always gauge an individual’s intelligence by their language proficiency. This is wrong as Tan argues that her mother was very intelligent and had a good understanding of English. Just as Tan explains in the article, people with language difficulties are always ashamed of their inability to communicate fluently. They, however, have an “expressive command in English,” which, as Tan describes, has very realistic values and thematic expressions, thus its efficiency in communication if listened to attentively. Limitations such as adapting and fairly competing in the standardized tests and schooling in the American education system, as she states in the essay, hindered her central identity as a writer. This is evident when Tan states in the essay that she found success in her career as a writer when she chose to embrace her mother’s “broken” English in her writing. The efficiency of language and communication, therefore, rely significantly on the perception attributed to it.
In general, Tan’s perspective and views of English and language are valid as they depict her experience and that of her mother as an immigrant trying to communicate with native English speakers. Tan’s shift from the formal version of English to using her mother’s form of English as she writes The Englishes She Grew Up With demonstrates the possibility of incorporating different language variations to communicate effectively. The essay exhibits her struggle to find her voice as a writer, raised by her mother, who speaks “broken” English. It also gives an overview of how her background (growing up with her mother) has impacted her life in terms of education and career. She continues to describe how she lives between two worlds (life with her mother, speaking simple English, and life with the rest of the world, speaking complex English). She concludes by detailing how she learned to embrace her past experiences. The kind of English Tan’s mother speaks might not be easy for native speakers to comprehend, but according to Tan, it is direct, vivid, and filled with imagery and observation.
Tan, Amy. “Mother Tongue.” The Threepenny Review, 43.7, 1990.