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While language is used to communicate information in a direct manner, the style of language usage also provides information about the person that is speaking or writing and their relationship with the intended audience. Amy Tan discusses the different styles of English that she grew up speaking as the child of a Chinese immigrant in her article, Mother Tongue. The title is a pun, meaning both Tan’s native language of English and the style of English that she uses when she communicates with her mother. Her mother speaks English as a second language and has a specific way of talking. Tan points out that her use of this simpler form of English with her mother, which sounds awkward to native speakers, is something that she does automatically. She isn’t consciously aware of switching between the style of English she uses with her mother and the more sophisticated, American vernacular that she uses with other native English speakers; it is something she has been doing since early childhood. Tan discusses the differences between the intimate language she shares with her mother and family, and the formal language she uses with some others. She effectively argues that these differences are an integral part of the way that people use to define their relationships with others. T
an goes on to explore the topic of the types of assumptions people make about others based on their style of speech. Does the way that people speak with those in their intimate circle and the way they speak with those outside of it always differ, and if it does, are the speakers even aware of the change in style? As a writer, Tan is fascinated by the uses of language and the subtle meanings they contain. The difference between the English Tan uses with her mother and the English she uses with others is highlighted in her mind when she is giving a talk about her novel The Joy Luck Club. This was a talk that she had given many times before, and she uses erudite and syntactically complex English in these discussions. She realized as she was speaking that her mother was in the audience. Her mother had never heard Tan speak professionally before, and it emphasized the difference in the two ‘Englishes’ to Tan as she wondered how well her mother would understand her speech. Tan provides an example of the style of English that she uses with her mother to clarify the difference for the reader and to demonstrate how she slips into its use with her mother without being conscious of doing it. She describes walking down the street with her mother, discussing the cost of furniture. “…I heard myself saying this: “Not waste money that way””. She would never phrase an English sentence that way to a native English speaker, but this is the way that she and her mother have spoken to each other in English since she learned to speak. Tan describes the difficulties that her mother’s style of speaking English cause outside of the family and the Chinese American community. She knows that her mother’s grasp of English is superior to her ability to express it, and comments that her mother is able to read complex financial publications such as Forbes, enjoy American books, and listen to news broadcasts with no problem. Yet, Tan notes that her friends tell her they have a great deal of trouble understanding her mother’s speech. The reader can sense the pain that Tan feels as she remembers being embarrassed by her mother’s stilted speech when she was growing up. She resents the use of terms such as ‘broken English because this is the language that she grew up with, and it has connotations of home and family for her.
At the same time, she recognizes that the world outside of their intimate circle is critical of her mother’s imperfect English, and that some people make assumptions about her mother’s intelligence and competence when they hear her speak. Anyone familiar with Tan’s fictional work knows that her stories are centered around members of the Chinese American community, both immigrants and the children of immigrants. Language is one of the major obstacles that immigrants must overcome, and heavily accented ‘broken’ English is a mark of the newcomer. For the children of immigrants, who speak fluent English, the difficulty that their parents have with the language may be both an embarrassment when dealing with the outside world and a bonding element within the home. Tan relates a couple of anecdotes from her childhood and adolescence when her mother asked her to speak for her when dealing with native English speakers. As a child, Tan recalls finding this awkward and uncomfortable. Recalling it from an adult perspective, however, Tan appears to find the situations more amusing than mortifying. As a writer, Tan contends that she has struck a happy medium between the intimate English she uses with her mother and the fluent English that she uses with colleagues and audiences. When she writes, she imagines her mother as the reader. She doesn’t write in ‘broken’ English, but imagines how her mother would express herself if she spoke the fluent English of the native speaker. Tan tries to transcend the mechanical limitations of language, and access her mother’s “…intent, her passion, her imagery, the rhythms of her speech and the nature of her thoughts”. In this way, Tan unites the different ‘Englishes’ that she speaks, and the relationships that they are linked to, into a more comprehensive language that encompasses all aspects of her life.
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