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“Mother Tongue” by Amy Tan Essay

Amy Tan begins by announcing, “I am not a scholar of English…I cannot give you much more than personal opinions on the English language and its variations in this country and others.” How does this opening set up your expectations for the rest of the essay? Why do you think she chose to begin by denying her own authority?

The introduction Tan decided to use presents the reader with a strong sense of the kind of individual she is. By saying “I am not a scholar of English”, Tan is revealing how humble she is. Amy Tan has written many novels and essays (some of which have been nationally recognized). Yet, she starts off her essay by stating that this is just a product of her opinion and that it is in no way superior to any others opinion. This manner of denying her own authority shows her strong belief that everyone can have their own interpretation of the value of the English language, much like she does. Her opening draws the reader in; it intrigues us. We are pleased with the idea that Tan is going to bring a new perspective to the “personal opinions on the English language”. Her opening also causes to reader to have a moment of self-reflection. We start to wonder what our opinion on the English language has been, momentarily stunned because, truly, we have never thought about this in-depth before. Therefore, our expectations for the rest of the essay increase.

Tan writes about the different “Englishes” she speaks. What categories does she divide English into? Why are these divisions important to Tan? How does she say they affect her as a writer? At the beginning of the essay, Tan herself questions how to put a label on the complex “Englishes” that she has grown up with. To Tan, these “Englishes” do not just represent a way of speaking; they are multi-dimensional and a big part of her journey to find out who she truly is. Through self-reflection, at the end of her essay, she is able to come up with four categories of the English she uses: the kind of English she speaks to her mother (considered a “simple English”), the English her mother uses with her (considered a “broken English”), her translation of her mother’s Chinese (considered a “watered down” version), and the kind of English Tan aspires to capture (her mother’s internal language- the translation of Chinese if her mother could speak English perfectly.)

These divisions matter to Tan because each of these “Englishes” uniquely contribute in forming who Tan is. As a writer, this exposure to all of these “Englishes” has affected her greatly. She no longer focuses on writing to the readers who can understand English perfectly. Tan’s understanding of the multifaceted “Englishes” present in our nation allow her to get her message across to a larger audience.

How does writing for a literary audience affect the language Tan primarily uses in the essay? What kind of English do you think she believes her audience speaks? Why? Support your answer with quotations from the text.

Tan is aware that the literary audience will have a higher expectation of her writing. Therefore, she does not write in the manner in which her mother would speak (“broken English”). However, throughout her essay, any reader, whether an English scholar or student would easily be able to understand what Tan is trying to convey through her writing. In her essay Tan states: “Fortunately, for reasons I won’t get into today, I later decided I should envision a reader for the stories I would write.

And the reader I decided upon was my mother.” Tan’s writing fully expresses the nature of her thoughts and ideas, but she writes in a way that will allow anyone to read her essay. Tan knows that there are people full of thoughts and emotions as complex as hers but are hindered by their lack of knowing English perfectly. She does not want her complex English phrasing to stop them from being able to gain something from her writing.

How does Tan’s title – “Mother Tongue” – affect the way you read her argument? What other titles might she have chosen? Tan’s choice of title-“Mother Tongue”- allows the reader to understand Tan’s relationship with her mother. Although at some points, Tan was critical and embarrassed of her mother’s English, she has grown to understand and accept the idea that everyone can have their own kind of English. As a reader, the title allows you to have an open mind to the concept that “broken English” is not necessarily broken. People may not be able to speak English perfectly, but that does not mean you can label them as uneducated nor does it mean you are superior. Tan could have used a title that was patronizing or condescending.

Her title could have swayed the reader to let go of whatever English they use and to start using “proper”/”formal” English. But as Tan said in her essay: “Fortunately, I happen to be rebellious in nature and enjoy the challenge of disproving assumptions..” Tan embraces the kind of English her mother uses because it plays a big part in who she is and how she speaks her own English and the title “Mother Tongue” is a testimony of that.

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