By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Mother Tongue’ is an essay by Amy Tan, an American author who was born to Chinese immigrants in 1952. Tan wrote ‘Mother Tongue’ in 1990, a year after her novel The Joy Luck Club was a runaway success. In the essay, Tan discusses her relationship with language, and how her mother’s influence has shaped her use of English, as well as her attitude to it.
You can read ‘Mother Tongue’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Amy Tan’s essay below.
‘Mother Tongue’: summary
Amy Tan begins her essay by offering her personal opinions on the English language. She recalls a recent talk she gave, when, upon realising her mother was in the audience, she was confronted with the fact that the formal standard English she was using in the public talk was at odds with the way she spoke at home with her mother. She then contrasts this with a moment when she was walking down the street with her mother and she used the more clipped, informal English she naturally uses with her mother, and her husband.
Tan calls this a ‘language of intimacy’. She points out that her mother is intelligent and reads things which Tan herself cannot begin to understand. But many people who hear her mother speak can only partially understand what she is saying, and some even say they can understand nothing of what she says, as if she were speaking pure Chinese to them. Tan calls this clipped informal language her ‘mother tongue’, because it was the first language she learned and it helped to shape the way she saw the world and made sense of it.
Tan notes the difficulty of finding a term to describe the style of English her mother, as a Chinese immigrant to the United States, speaks. Many of the terms, such as ‘broken’ or ‘limited’, are too negative and imply her English is imperfect. She acknowledges that when she was growing up, she was ashamed of the way her mother spoke. Her mother, too, was clearly aware of how her use of the language affected how seriously people took her, for she used to get her daughter to phone people and pretend to be ‘Mrs Tan’.
She observes that her mother is treated differently because of the way she speaks. She recounts a time when the doctors at the hospital were unsympathetic towards her mother when they lost the results of the CAT scan they had undertaken on her brain, but as soon as the hospital – at her mother’s insistence – called her daughter, they issued a grovelling apology.
Amy Tan also believes her mother’s English affected her daughter’s school results. Tan acknowledges that, whilst she did well in maths and science, subjects with a single correct answer, she was less adept at English. She struggled with tests which asked students to pick a correct word to fill in the blanks in a sentence because she was distracted by the imaginative and poetic possibilities of other words.
Indeed, Tan conjectures that many Asian American children are probably encouraged to pursue careers in jobs requiring maths and science rather than English for this reason. But because she is rebellious and likes to challenge people’s assumptions about her, Tan bucked this trend. She majored in English at college and began writing as a freelancer. She began writing fiction in 1985, and after several false starts trying to find her own style and idiom, she began to write with her mother in mind as the ideal reader for her stories. Indeed, her mother read drafts of her work.
And Tan drew on all the Englishes, plural, that she knew: the ‘broken’ English her mother used, the ‘simple’ English Tan used when talking to her mother, the ‘watered-down’ Chinese her mother used, and her mother’s ‘internal’ language which conveyed her passion, intent, imagery, and the nature of her thoughts. When her mother told her that what she had written was easy to read, Tan knew that she had succeeded in her aims as a writer.
‘Mother Tongue’: analysis
The title of Amy Tan’s essay is a pun on the expression ‘mother tongue’, referring to one’s first language. But Tan’s language, or ‘tongue’, has been shaped by her actual mother, whose first language (or mother tongue) was not English, but Chinese. The different forms of English that mother and daughter speak are also a product of their backgrounds: whilst Tan’s mother is a Chinese immigrant to America, Tan was born in the United States and has grown up, and been educated, in an English-speaking culture.
Much of Tan’s 1989 novel The Joy Luck Club is about daughters and their relationships with their mothers. But Tan’s interest in language, both as a cultural marker and as a way of expressing thought and personality, is also a prevailing theme of the novel. In this respect, if the parable ‘Feathers from a Thousand Li Away’ acts as preface to the novel, ‘Mother Tongue’, in effect, acts as a kind of postscript. It helps us to understand the way Tan approaches and uses language within the stories that make up The Joy Luck Club.
An overarching theme of Tan’s novel is mothers emigrating to America in the hope that their daughters will have better lives than they did. This is a key part of ‘Feathers from a Thousand Li Away’, and it helps us to understand Tan’s conflicted attitude towards her mother’s use of language as explored in ‘Mother Tongue’.
Many of the mothers in The Joy Luck Club, such as Betty St. Clair in ‘The Voice from the Wall’, feel isolated from those around them, never at home in America, and hyper-aware of their outsider status, despite becoming legal permanent citizens in the country. Tan’s autobiographical revelations in ‘Mother Tongue’ show us that her own mother struggled to be taken seriously among Americans, and Tan diagnoses this struggle as a result of her mother’s different way of speaking.
Tan, by contrast, used standard English – what used to be referred to, in loaded phrases, as ‘correct’ or ‘proper’ English – and was thus able to succeed in getting herself, and by extension her mother, taken seriously by others. Language is thus more than just a cultural marker: Tan reveals, in ‘Mother Tongue’, the extent to which it is a tool of power (or, depending on the use, powerlessness), particularly for those from migrant backgrounds.
In this connection, it is noteworthy that Tan chooses to focus on the school tests she undertook before concluding that her mother’s ‘broken’ style of English has been misunderstood – not just literally (by some people who’ve known her), but in terms of the misleading perceptions of her it has led others to formulate. The class tests at school which reduced English proficiency to an ability to recognise a ‘correct’ answer are thus contrasted with Tan’s resounding final words of ‘Mother Tongue’, which see her seeking to capture the passion of her mother, the ‘nature of her thoughts’, and the imagery she uses: all things which her daughter has clearly inherited a respect for, and which school tests fail to capture or observe.