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“Mother Tongue” explores Amy Tan’s relationship with the English language, her mother, and writing. This nonfiction narrative essay was originally given as a talk during the 1989 State of the Language Symposium; it was later published by The Threepenny Review in 1990. Since then, “Mother Tongue” has been anthologized countless times and won notable awards and honors, including being selected for the 1991 edition of Best American Essays.
The original publication of “Mother Tongue,” which this study guide refers to, breaks the essay into three sections. In the first Tan briefly primes the reader on her relationship with “different Englishes” (7). Tan bridges the first and second parts of the essay with descriptions of her “mother’s English,” or her “mother tongue” (7). In the second section Tan describes the impact her mother’s language had on her; Tan’s mother is a Chinese immigrant who often relied on her daughter to produce “perfect English” (7). In the concluding section Tan then connects her mother’s English to Tan’s own choices regarding writing style and career.
In the initial section of “Mother Tongue,” Amy Tan locates her position as “a writer… someone who has always loved language” (7). She describes the multiple Englishes that she uses, from formal academic language to the English she uses with her mother to the English she uses at home with her husband. The section concludes with Tan’s description of her mother’s “expressive command of English” (7), which is in conflict with her mother’s fluency in the language. Although her mother might speak English that is difficult for native speakers to understand, to Tan, her mother’s language is “vivid, direct, full of observation and imagery” (7).
As Tan moves through the second section of “Mother Tongue,” she describes some of the more difficult aspects of being raised by a parent who spoke English that others struggled to understand. Tan references the oft-used language of “broken” English and suggests that her mother’s English and way of speaking, despite its obvious interpersonal and social limitations (including harming Tan’s performance on such metrics as standardized tests), provided Tan a different semantic way of understanding the world.
The final section of “Mother Tongue” transitions into personal reflection as Tan describes how she has reckoned with being raised by her mother in a xenophobic society. As a writer, Tan only found success when she moved away from more proper, academic register and instead wrote “in the Englishes [she] grew up with” (8). The essay concludes with Tan’s mother’s opinion about Tan’s most famous novel, The Joy Luck Club, in which Tan attempted to write in this fashion. Her mother’s “verdict: ‘So easy to read’” (8).