Amy Tan

Amy Tan

Amy Tan, a Chinese American novelist, portrays in her short essay “Mother Tongue” that in the world today, there are many multicultural and bilingual people. For many of these people, they struggle with what social or cultural community they fit into or belong with. These include the choices they have to make about what language they use and how they decide to use it. For Tan, she grew up in two different worlds, using different types of English or “Englishes.” In her first world that consisted of her close family, she spoke what was known as “broken” or “fractured” English. This type of English was one that was very hard to understand and wasn’t grammatically correct. Many people would describe it as damaged or that it lacked a certain wholeness in the sound. In the second world that Tan was known to which was her business and profession, she was able to write and speak with perfect academic English. Between these two vastly different worlds and communities, Amy Tan experienced a lot of different positive and negative effects with having to speak different Englishes and has thus wrote about the power of language in “Mother Tongue” and says, “I spend a great deal of my time thinking about the power of language the way it can evoke an emotion, a visual image, a complex idea, or a simple truth.” (Tan 100) I agree with Tan’s opinion about the power of language even though I am not bilingual, I have experienced very similar misconceptions with my own mother and a few friends as well. Language can easily affect the way other people treat you, the opportunities that are given, and change your own perception of yourself.

In many ways, language can play a vital role on how other people are going to treat you or view you as a person. To some people, it is a good way to mistreat the other person such as; if they don’t understand you, they won’t help you. When one doesn’t understand what is being said by the other person, whether they need help with something or not, they tend to give up on them because they don’t understand what it is they want and then result to not giving them the help that they need. For Tan, this occurred to her mother when she went to the hospital to get her CAT scan which they had lost and showed no sympathy or an apology to her mother because of her English. Once Amy Tan talked to them herself she said, “And when the doctor finally called her daughter, me, who spoke in perfect English– lo and behold– we had assurances the CAT scan would be found, promises that a conference call on Monday would be held, and apologies for any suffering my mother had gone through for a most regrettable mistake.” (Tan 102) Due to her mother’s broken English, she wasn’t treated the same and was not able to get the help she needed on her own. She was instead ignored by the hospital staff and was not given important information about her health when needed.

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People tend to base their opinions of you, especially if they just met you, by the way you speak. When Tan thinks back to her life, she says, “I think my mother’s English almost had an effect on limiting my possibilities in life as well. Sociologists and linguists probably will tell you that a person’s developing language skills are more influenced by peers. But I do think that the language spoken in the family, especially in immigrant families which are more insular, plays a large role in shaping the language of the child.” (Tan 102) Tan explains how her language skills had an affect on her achievement test, IQ tests, and SAT results. Due to the precision of math, there is only one correct answer, which lacks any form of language and thus resulted to her scoring higher in math. This however, leads to a misconception by her teachers who didn’t think it was good enough to override their opinion that her true ability is in math and science rather than in English. Like Tan, the language style I have perceived growing up with middle eastern parents, has affected my academic achievement in the English department as well. Though I do not speak with broken English like my mother or Tan’s mother does, I do have various different Englishes that I use which has affected me academically.

The use of language surely has an effect on how one perceives themselves. In many cases it can destroy one’s opportunity or confidence. My father came to the United States from Palestine to seek a big corporate business position, and in spite of his efforts and hard work he displayed, his English wasn’t quite top-notch, so people assumed that he has never even bothered to learn English properly by his struggles with speaking and lost the position. He relied on self-study, picking things up, and college classes but whenever he feels that he can only get so far and with any progress he has made it then was promptly negated whenever someone deems his English to still be below the par. This underlines the challenges and danger in having to be judged by how much English foreign nationals ought to learn and only forces them to change their own perception of themselves. My father definitely can get by very well and can easily get along in a work environment, but this didn’t stop people from telling him that he should improve his English if he is going to choose to live in the United States. For Tan, she touched onto her mother’s perception of herself when her mother realized how her use of language had affected the way people treated her. “My mother has long realized the limitations of her English as well.” (Tan 101) Her mother would have Tan pretend to be her on the phone so that people would not take advantage of or ignore her.

Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” is an eye-opening narrative about how people are mistreated and overlooked because of the style of language and dialect they choose to use. It is also to help inform and express her beliefs and discovery of the power of language and intimacy. Tan wanted to provide us with this new innovation of language within the family atmosphere, and acknowledge the people who speak broken English that are usually misrepresented by their tongue as an unintelligent person. After reading this narrative I believe people will become more aware of their perception and treatment of others based on their language style. People with different styles of language often miss opportunities because others misjudge them and do not care to look beyond the way they speak to see their full potential they have to offer as an individual. In this world, the way you speak can affect a lot of things about you and for you. When I think of my own experiences I certainly can agree with Tan’s theory on the power of language and how it truly can affect the way other people treat you, the opportunities you are given, and the way you view and perceive yourself.


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