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Amy Tan's Mother Tongue: Summary & Themes

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  • 0:03 Background & Summary…
  • 0:39 Themes: Finding Her Voice
  • 1:32 Themes: Two Worlds
  • 2:48 Themes: Shame & Education
  • 4:04 Themes: Coming to Terms
  • 4:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

In the essay, 'Mother Tongue' by Amy Tan, we are asked to consider how the language we grow up with affects us throughout our lives. The essay looks at themes of shame, education, and living in two worlds. Hopefully, in the end we find joy.

Background & Summary of Mother Tongue

Amy Tan is an Asian-American writer whose works focus a lot on relationships between mothers and daughters. This is because she grew up in a home with her Chinese mother who spoke English that was, at best, difficult for many people to understand. Tan came to realize this because when Tan was with her mother, she spoke English differently, more simply, like her mother.

In the essay, Mother Tongue, we see an article about Amy Tan contemplating how her background affected her life, her education, held her between two worlds, and brought her shame, but ultimately she learns to embrace her background.

Themes: Finding Her Voice

Amy Tan found her voice as a writer by spending time with her mother who spoke broken English. It is a bit surprising that Tan ended up as a writer considering the fact that she was expected to study the sciences. She tells us in her essay, Mother Tongue, ''I was told by my former boss that writing was my worst skill and I should hone my talents toward account management.'' However, Tan was stubborn and determined, so she didn't take his criticism to heart; she made it work for her.

She was giving a talk to a group of people about her book, Joy Luck Club, and she found herself using English that was sophisticated and complex. While she was talking, she was aware of the fact that her mother was sitting in the back; it was the first time her mother had come to hear her speak. Tan was cognizant of the fact that she was using English she did not use around her mother. It hit her that the two worlds she had grown up in had impacted her writing as well as her life.

Themes: Two Worlds

Tan is stuck between two worlds. When she is with her mother, she speaks in simple English, but out in the world, she shifts to an English that is more formal and acceptable. Tan relates her story of her mother talking about a gangster that wanted her family in China to adopt him because her family had more status. She tells us the story using her mother's language so we can see how expressive her mother's broken English is. Even though the language is not what we may be used to, her story is something we can follow. It is vivid with detail and images.

But Tan also tells us that many of her friends have a difficult time understanding what her mother is saying. Some of her friends go so far as to say they understand none of what she says, and this is particularly interesting because Mrs. Tan's understanding of English is far greater than she would have us believe. She is an avid pleasure reader, and she is a woman who is on top of her financial situation, in part, because she reads Forbes and the Wall Street Journal.

For Tan, her mother's language is the language of her childhood, and it is clear, vivid, and full of imagery. She has no difficulties understanding exactly what her mother is saying. She knows that this simple English is the same language that helped her understand the world, helped her formulate her views, and helped her learn to express herself.

Themes: Shame

Still, Tan has felt shame. When she was young, her mother's English would cause her embarrassment. Often, she would have to intervene so her mother could be understood. She relates a story where she pretended to be her mother on the phone talking to her mother's stockbroker about a missing check. We feel her pain as this young girl tries to sound like her mother, while her mother is talking loudly in the background telling her what to say. No one was fooled, but Amy Tan felt the heat of shame. This was not the first time it had happened, and it would not be the last.

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