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Amy Tan's "Mother Tongue": The Purpose And Power Of Language
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From Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” (76-81), it is evident that language has an effect on our lives. Language defines the type of person I am generally and it has had an effect on my choices as well as my lifestyle. Language has become my way of seeing life in a different perspective. In “Mother Tongue,” Amy Tan discusses the many ways in which the language that she was taught affected her life. I can definitely relate to Tan’s essay because I too came from a bilingual home. Like Amy Tan, I have intelligent immigrant parents and I am their main avenue of communication with people who don’t understand them. I believe the main idea of Tan’s “Mother Tongue” is to stress that just because someone cannot speak the English language to perfection, that does not in any way make them less intelligent than someone who is born in this country and understands and speaks English fluently. However, what makes us different is that it is rare to find two people who speak the exact same English. Although Tan and I both helped our parents and came from non-traditional homes, Tan came from a Chinese family while I came from an Albanian family. We both had similar ideas about language playing a major role in our families, and it was also a big challenge for both of us while we were raised by immigrant parents who spoke “limited English” (Tan, 78).
The first reason I can relate to Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” essay is that I am also not a natural-born citizen of the USA. I, too, have parents who have their own way of speaking and understanding the English language. Another reason is how similar her personal stories are to mine; they remind me of my very own memories with my parents, who are both bright and intelligent individuals. I have been my parents' translator for as long as I can remember. Amy Tan states that “like others, I have described it to people as 'broken' or 'fractured' English" (Tan, 78). Having to constantly be present for an appointment with my parents always made me wonder how other people viewed my parents. Did they think them inferior or not educated? I have to admit, having to be there was annoying, if not embarrassing. I felt it was my duty to help them out. I would imagine that if the situation were reversed, they would, with no doubt in my mind, help me the same way I have assisted them.
For Tan and myself, language is very special. It brings us closer to our family and is something that is unique for both of us. Early in her essay “Mother Tongue,” Amy Tan discusses this power of language. She writes, “it can evoke an emotion, a visual image, a complex idea, or a simple truth” (76). Recently, I had an experience with language deprivation when I had laryngitis. The three days I was without my voice were frustrating, interminable, and evidence of the power and purpose of language. Though at times I could whisper, people had difficulty hearing and understanding me, and I couldn't write my thoughts down quickly enough to meaningfully converse with others. In short, my lack of voice impaired my ability to express myself and to communicate and indeed participate in my world. Moreover, language, the combination of specific words in a particular order, not only empowers individuals to participate as members of a designated community, it is also a fundamental key in enabling individuals to establish and define the dimensions of their identity.
Indeed, just as language can be the glue that binds individuals into a community, language is a double-edged sword that also bears the power to alienate an individual from a community or at the very least identify him or her as an outsider. One example which relates to Amy Tan’s mother and comes to my mind is the story of Alessia, a little girl who was in my third-grade class. Alessia was Italian, and she didn't speak much Albanian. I doubt she knew or understood more than a handful of Albanian words. Day after day, Alessia sat in our class, not understanding what the teacher was saying. Alessia was in our little community of third graders, but she wasn't really a part of it. Though the other children weren't particularly cruel to her, neither did they include her. Why? They didn't know how to communicate with her. As a child, I didn't think about it, but certainly this little eight-year-old child was overwhelmed by the incomprehensible barrage of Albanian words being hurled at her. She was frustrated that she had something to say but had no voice with which to say it, and she was lonely because she was isolated from those who shared a common language.
Not only can language articulate a simple truth, one's command of it demonstrates a simple truth: without language, one is voiceless, with imperfect language, one is perceived as imperfect, and with standard language, one is superior, at least from the perspectives of those who possess the standard command of language. Tan also examines this relationship of language to acceptance in a dominant community in “ Mother Tongue” (78). She goes on to give countless examples of this truth in action when she writes about how her mother was treated: “people in department stores, at banks, and at restaurants did not take her seriously, did not give her good service, pretended not to understand her, or even acted as if they did not hear her” (Tan, 78). Why did they treat Mrs.Tan in such a disrespectful manner? For the sole reason that she spoke a simple, non-native variation of English, derogatorily referred to as “broken” or “fractured” English (Tan, 78). Indeed, this is the power of language: without standard language skills, one is identified as an outsider, often inaccurately perceived and unfairly discriminated against.
Identification with and acceptance in a community is not the only result of language acquisition. Tan and I both experience an unbreakable link between language and individuality. In other words, our experience with language shapes our sense of self-identity. Tan writes of the different Englishes she uses. Chiefly, she distinguishes between the simple form of English she speaks with her family and the more complex version of the language she uses in her personal life. Though there was a time when Tan was embarrassed by her mother’s English, she now sees things from a different perspective. She writes, “my mother's English is perfectly clear. ... It's my mother tongue. Her language, as I hear it, is vivid, direct, full of observation and imagery. That was the language that helped shape the way I saw things, expressed things, made sense of the world" (Tan, 78). The language that she once perceived as inferior, sub-standard, or broken, she now views as intimate, special, and representative of her mother's beautiful and insightful expression of herself and view of the world, which Mrs.Tan, in turn, taught her daughter. Her point is well taken.
Another difference with Tan is that she is a native-born citizen while I am not. When I first came to America, I personally experienced the hardship of communicating with others, although English had been taught in Albania. It was difficult for me at first to speak English and look for friends. I was extremely shy speaking English, afraid of making mistakes. I was scared that people might not understand me and get confused about what I meant; but as time passed by, I learned to adopt the culture of speaking English. It was hard at first accepting English as a second language, but I am more comfortable with it now. Tan excelled in math and science but she tended to have a hard time getting good grades in English. It is important for Tan to claim her mother's English because it was a challenge to her but helped her achieve her command of proper English, and she is a writer now. Using “simple English” (80), Tan wants to share a message with those who don't speak English well. She wants to share the message that even if you have a hard time speaking English, your point of view is still important. It is also clear that Tan’s mother helped her understood English in a different, unique way, and that is the language Tan uses today. Blocking out the critics, she knew it was important when her mother approved her book by saying "So easy to read" (Tan, 81).
Even if we are not multilingual, do we not all have a different mother tongue taught to us as children which has unconsciously shaped the way we see ourselves and our world? And do we not all speak our own different Englishes, calling upon them as the occasion and audience direct? Certainly, the language I call upon in a meeting with the president of the university differs from the language that I use with my colleagues, which is different from the language I speak with my friends or family, which differs from the language I use with my daughter. It may be a matter of word choice or intonation or slang or content or purpose, but each is a different part of my self and my world.
Language is many things: the arrangement of words in a particular order, uttered in a certain way, denoting a certain meaning; it is a political instrument which evokes images and motion. Certainly, all of this is a description of the purpose and function of language. But as its most fundamental, language is quite simply the expression of self and the ability to share that expression with others. The learning of one's mother tongue will provide an individual the right to study their culture and will also preserve family bonds and lessen cultural conflicts between generations. Tan and I both want to highlight the importance of language: to be without language is to be voiceless, and to be voiceless is to silence the song of the self. [Barolli]