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Tan's Relationship with The English Language in Mother Tongue

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The essay, “Mother Tongue,” by Amy Tan, is about how language can be spoken in different ways, all depending were an individual is from, where or whom the person grew up with, and if or not education was withdrawn. Tan was an Asian-American writer and her passion was language. She grew up with her mother who was Chinese. Tan’s life was affected and brought her shame but eventually she learns how to grasp her background. She applied language as a tool in her work which brings her ideas. Tan interprets different versions of English in her life, particularly when she was giving an academic talk about her novel, The Joy Luck Club. She had this talk before but this time her words sounded wrong because her mother was in the room.

Tan realized that the version of English she uses with her mother and close family is a broken English. This replicates some of the trait of a native speaker of Chinese who had learned English as an adult rather than as a child. Tan’s mother told her about the importance of showing respect for a family by coming to a wedding in Chinese custom. However, Tan hears her mother’s speech as flowing and natural because she has grown up hearing her mother’s version of English all her life, she understands it completely and without effort. Still, when she was growing up, Tan was ashamed of the way her mother expressed herself in English, especially when she saw how salespeople in stores or bank tellers ignored her. It seemed as though society was telling Tan that her mother’s limited speech was a huge embarrassing problem. And vice versa, knowing how Tan was anticipated, Mrs. Tan would make Tan pretend to be her on the phone in order to get the kind of treatment she deserves.

Tan wonders whether the way her family spoke English could have limited her opportunities in life. On a variety of achievement tests, her results showed that she was math savvy and that her English skills were decent. She found multiple choice math tests easy because each question could only have one answer, whereas language questions always seemed more different and she could argue over the answer choices. In an analogies questions Tan found hard to answer because she could probably connect all the possible analogy pairs through logic. The achievement test problem is not just about college applications. She wonders whether this immigrant family English could be part of the reason that there are less Asian-American authors. If they all tend to do better on the math part of achievement tests because of how their parents speak, then maybe they are being misguided by teachers. Tan rebelled against this science and math version of herself by switching from her pre-med major to English.

Tan ignored her ex-boss who told her that her writing skills were dreadful but later, bestselling and award-winning fiction. Her writing was trying to prove that she had mastery over English. She tried using flowery, overly complicated vocabulary to demonstrate how well she could write. Eventually, she realized that to write well she needed a reader. The reader she imagined was her mother, so she tried to create an English that was true to what she imagined her mother’s internal English speech would be like which is a version somewhere between English and Chinese. At last, Tan knew she had succeeded when her mother finished reading her book and her mother said it was so easy to read. 

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Tan’s Relationship with the English Language in Mother Tongue. (2022, February 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 29, 2022, from
“Tan’s Relationship with the English Language in Mother Tongue.” GradesFixer, 10 Feb. 2022,
Tan’s Relationship with the English Language in Mother Tongue. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 29 Sept. 2022].
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