Mother Tongue by Amy Tan

In the essay Mother Tongue by Amy Tan shows how English does not have only one type, but a variety of ways to be used and understood. It is an invitation to see English as a variety of ideas and expressions of oneself.

Amy Tan has ethos on the subject of English and how it is used in a variety of tongues because her mother is Chinese and immigrated to California. Her mother speaks a little bit differently than most Americans but she can get her point across to her daughter, who is an English major, as clear as day. Amy Tan knows the two worlds of language between her work as a writer and as a daughter to a Chinese mother. “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 me shape the way I saw things, expressed things, made sense of the world.” Amy Tan is a physical bridge between her mother’s language of English and the English she learned in school.

Amy Tan uses pathos when she tells stories of the times her mother struggled to get respect from the people around her just because of the way that she expressed English a bit differently than most. “You should know that my mother’s expressive command of English belies how much she actually understands. She reads the Forbes report, listens to Wall Street Week, converses daily with her stockbroker, reads all of Shirley MacLaine’s books with ease- all kinds of things I cant begin to understand.” This false notion that Amy Tan’s mother was uneducated because of the way that she talked influenced the way people perceived her. Clearly Mrs. Tan was a very educated individual though if she can participate in reading and conversing with situations that most Americans can’t follow. The audience is compassionate and angered at this point because of the injustices that happen to educated individuals because they speak slightly off kilter than the rest and are penalized and prejudiced against because of it.

The quote that stuck out to me in this essay was “My mother has long realized the limitations of her English as well. When I was fifteen, she used to have me call people on the phone to pretend I was her.” This simplistic sentence was ingrained in my mind because it showed the mother’s insight to how she was perceived by society when she spoke. To get around this prejudice that she had no control over, she would use her daughter to speak for her to be treated with dignity when she needed to wok through others. She used her daughter with stockbrokers, doctors, and store employees, to ensure that she was given the same opportunities when she would have to speak through her daughter to strangers.

–Addy Nichols

Arrangement: Tan starts out the essay with describing that she is a writer. She sets up the essay with a specific intention in mind. Now, the reader wants to know why this statement matters. Next, Tan begins to talk about the background of her family and the language barriers that existed with a Chinese-speaking mother. Later, she discusses how it was difficult to find her place as a writer because she had a different language upbringing than others. Finally, she ties it all together with discussing how she found a specific audience to write for. Her experience with language shaped who she is and drove her passion. This arrangement is effective because it all comes full circle in a logical way.

Style: Throughout the essay, Tan uses simple and easy to read language. The essay is straight and to the point. At first, this seems strange because if the topic is language then one would think the writer would want to “show off.” But this style works perfectly for Tan because it is a prime example of her intention of the essay.  Her very last sentence is a statement from her mother “So easy to read.” You can tell that simplicity and authenticity are important to Tan and her style accomplishes these values.

Quote:  “Fortunately, I happen to be rebellious in nature and enjoy the challenge of disproving assumptions made about me.” I love this quote because it shows a very interesting aspect to Tan. She is relatable and we all ant to have these qualities. This quote makes the audience root for her and care about her intention.

–Mackenzie Coon

At the very beginning of her essay, Amy Tan states that she is “not a scholar of English or literature.” A few sentences later she states, “I am a writer.” This use of short sentences is an example of Tan’s use of syntax in her essay. By starting the first two sentences with these very short sentences, Tan engages the audience with her writing which allows herself to create an emphasis on her intention. It also keeps the audience intrigued and interested into what she has to say. She wants her readers to understand that her English is different between her work life than when she is with her mother, yet, she wants to emphasize that these “tongues” are both English regardless. By using this type of sentence arrangement, Tan succeeds in getting her intention across to her audience.

Amy Tan uses the appeal of logos in her writing when she brings up facts of her past experiences. By using these facts, she explains her reasoning behind her thinking. Tan also uses logos when making connections between her professional “tongue” of English and the English that she speaks with her mother. This applies logic to her claims because it explains her intention by incorporating real life events.

My favorite quotation is “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.” I love this quote because it displays how Tan viewed her mother’s English as so nurturing and beautiful, even though it was not perfect. As a reader, it made me realize the possibility that she learned more from her mother’s broken English than she has learned from the professional English she uses in her work.

–Maria Schroeder


Tan begins by saying, “I am not a scholar of English or literature. I cannot give you much more than personal opinions on the English language and its variations in this country or others.” By stating this first, she purposefully brings down her ethos so that we, the readers, can initially relate to her. Throughout the rest of the essay, many readers will find it hard to directly to relate to the issues discussed, but this initial connection provides enough basis for the reader to be invested in the issue.

An interesting part of the essay is when Tan explains how her mother’s “limited English” limited her perceptions of her. “[She] believed that her English reflected the quality of what she had to say.” This is the mentality of many people, not just native English speakers. For example, when I visited Spain, I tried to speak in as much Spanish as possible. Obviously, my Spanish was broken, but I practiced using it when I ordered things. Like Tan alludes to, oftentimes, people there assumed that I was incompetent and needed help even though I understood nearly everything they were saying, and several people just ignored me altogether. When someone doesn’t speak a language with perfect fluency, people just assume that they are unable to function properly in society. Sofia Vegara is often viewed as an aloof celebrity, not capable of doing much more than looking good and occasionally being funny. She once said in an interview, “You have no idea how smart I am in Spanish.” Tan’s mother is similarly brilliant but like Vegara is unable to show this in her non-native language.

I thought that Tan’s explanation of her academic strong suits was interesting. Though she is a writer, Tan always scored lower in the English portions of tests than in math and science, because “Math is precise; there is only one correct answer. Whereas, for me at least, the answers on English tests were always a judgment call, a matter of opinion and personal experience.” This explains why so many immigrant children are better at subjects like math and science than English, and why so many people struggle with learning different languages, because they’re so subjective.

–Alyssa Cassidy


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