Amy Tan's "Mother Tongue"

by Amanda Weiss


One of the loveliest pieces I’ve read lately is Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue,” a brief essay on “all the Englishes” that the author grew up with. Tan, a second-generation Chinese American, recollects giving a speech on her first successful novel, The Joy Luck Club. The talk appears to be proceeding well until she notices her mother in the audience. She recalls:


 “I was saying things like ‘The intersection of memory upon imagination’ and ‘There is an aspect of my fiction that relates to this-and-this’—a speech filled with carefully wrought grammatical phrases, burdened, it suddenly seemed to me, with nominalized forms, past perfect tenses, conditional phrases, all the forms of standard English that I had learned in school and through books, the forms of English I did not use at home with my mother" (p. 196, Best American Essays 1991)


Tan contrasts this speech against the English she normally uses at home, a pared down mode of communication that only a speaker versed in the first language (Chinese) and second language (English) can fully grasp. She transcribes a conversation wherein her mother relates Chinese customs thusly:


 “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” (p. 197)


Tan feels shame growing up with her mother’s “limited” English, and guilt at regarding it as "broken." As a child, she blames her underachievement in language classes at school on her upbringing. However, as she matures Tan comes to respect her mother’s English, eventually incorporating it into her subsequent writings:


“…I began to write stories using all the Englishes I grew up with: the English I spoke to my mother, which for the lack of a better term might be described as ‘simple’; the English she used with me, which for lack of a better term might be described as ‘broken’; my translation of her Chinese, which could certainly be described as ‘watered down’; and what I imagined to be her translation of her Chinese if she could speak in perfect English, her internal language, and for that I sought to preserve the essence, but neither an English nor a Chinese structure" (pp. 201-202)




While reading this essay I was reminded of the linguistic hierarchy that places some forms of English above others. “Received pronunciation” British English appears to be at the top of this hierarchy, followed by English from the rest of the U.K., the U.S., Australia, and Canada. It made me wonder, why is it that some forms of English are perceived as more legitimate than others? Why should Indian English or Chinese English be considered any less authentic?


This essay also reminded me of a Guardian article on “linguistic imperialism,” the promotion of Anglo-American English despite the global reality of multicultural, multilingual societies. In it, the author argues that English language education in “postcolonial contexts” must incorporate local languages and local cultures. Tan’s brilliant essay argues for such a flexible, multicultural understanding of language. As she writes of her mother's English:


“I wanted to capture what language ability tests can never reveal: her intent, her passion, her imagery, the rhythms of her speech and the nature of her thoughts” (p. 202)