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Summary for Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” Essay

The essay is chiefly about the writer’s own rumination and judgment about how “broken English” compared to Standard English. Moreover it came to her sense that language not only “authorizes” individuals to participate as members of a designated community, it is also a essential key in enabling individuals to establish and define the dimensions of their identity. Though a lover of language and an erudite lover of language she is, she has never recognized this concept until she realized that she has never appeared eloquent and rhetoric in front of her mother.

She once again consciously aware of the “type” of language she used on daily and intimacy basis when she noted that her husband did not have a slightest reaction when she uttered a grammatically wrong phrase. Thinking about it, she knew it was because for over twenty years living together, that “wrong” kind of English has been used frequently in their conjugal life. And it came to her sense the presence of a different sort of language, the language of intimacy, the familial English.

To demonstrate this kind of family talk, Mrs. Tan quoted a story that her mother had told her. It was a very trivial story but the thing that worth looking at was her mother’s grammar. The quoted parts were filled with grammatical mistakes and the text was quite confusing. Yet, her mother had better command in English than all that was ostensibly showed in her story. She could read very sophisticated and high level documents without much difficulty. However, some of Tan’s friends confessed that her mother language was not very comprehensive because most of them could only get 50% or less what Tan’s mother was trying to say. But to the writer’s, her mother tongues was as vivid, graphical, and comprehensive as ever as she confides that it was this language that she discovered the world.

No matter how she appreciated her mother tongue as a tool that had enabled her to know the world, she realized that it was a “broken English” though she was quite agitated about calling it “broken” since she could find no way to fix it or to bring about its accuracy, and correctness. She also disturbed by other terms such as “limited English” because she thought it also implied the edge of the understanding of the speaker of other. Moreover, she feel abash by her mother English because her mother’s imperfect English makes Tan feel like her thinking is also defective. And not only Tan, but many others never took her mom seriously because either they did not comprehend her or did not hear her.

Tan’s mother was also conscious of the limitations of her English. That’s why she used to have Tan to answer phone calls which led to troublesome and tricky situations in which Tan had to yell and acting rudely at other people. Or when her mother was frustrated with the people at the hospital for not giving her an apology for losing her CAT and she exacerbated the problem with her broken English until Tan came. Arm with her proper English, Tan helped talk her mom out of the situation and help her to achieve what she wanted

Tan also blamed her mom’s limiting English responsible for her limiting possibilities in life. She thought it was the reason for all her not-doing-so-well in Verbal skill and also responsible for her ill performance in achievement tests. She agreed that the ever-changing nature of language exacerbated the situation as she cannot see the reason and the “science” behind an English question due to a limiting view influenced by her mother’s “broken English.” This made great impact not only on Tan but also on others who grew up in a Broken-English speaking environment as she tried to explain why there are more Asians-Americans in physical science class rather than literature and social science.

She started writing fiction in her impeccable English in 1985. Yet, she changed her mind and decided to write a book about mothers using the language that she has been growing up with, her broken mother tongue, in which she captured the language she and her mother used to talk to each other, the English language that is a verbatim translation from Chinese, the essence and the color of her mother’s internal language. She preserved those things, things that will never ever be reflected by a language test. Albeit whatever the critics might say about her work, Tan was satisfied to know that she has won the heart of the readers who she had targeted as her mother has given her a verdict, “So easy to read.”


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