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Mother Tongue: Essay Summary

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Table of contents

  1. The Genesis of "Mother Tongue": A Personal Revelation
  2. Exploring the Complexities of Language and Perception
  3. Amy Tan's Journey: From Self-Consciousness to Creative Writing
  4. The Subject of "Mother Tongue": Language as Identity and Barrier
  5. Challenging Stereotypes: The Intended Audience and Purpose
  6. Conclusion
  • Title of Work: “Mother Tongue”
  • Author: Amy Tan
  • Occasion: Explain the context of the piece. What has caused the speaker to say what s/he says? Minimum of 3 sentences. Include 3 quotes as evidence and explain what each quote tells us about the occasion.

The Genesis of "Mother Tongue": A Personal Revelation

“Mother Tongue” was inspired by Tan’s realization of the certain type of English she uses with her mother in comparison to her formal diction. As she was speaking to a group of people about The Joy Luck Club, Tan notices the way she was talking exceeded her mother’s comprehension. With her personal experiences in growing up in an immigrant family, Tan is confident that her mother is a knowledgeable woman, even though it is not reflected by her level of English. In “Mother Tongue”, Tan explains how she wrote her book so that people like her mother, for whom English is their second language, can read. She also analyzes the effects of her mother’s language impacted her life.

“... I remembered one major difference that made the whole talk sound wrong. My mother was in the room.”

Tan realizes that the English she was using to describe her newly published novel, laced with a formal and grammatically complex tone, was not the English her mother was familiar with. The author was puzzled by this realization which prompted her to analyze the different types of Englishes.

Exploring the Complexities of Language and Perception

“But they seem just as bad, as if everything is limited, including people’s perceptions of the limited English speaker.”

When attempting to describe her mother’s English, the author concludes that words associated with the language, like “broken” and “limited”, also have a tendency to describe the speaker too. To elaborate, if an individual speaks in “broken” English, they are received differently by society as lesser than native English speakers. Tan believes that people’s perceptions of a “limited” English speaker are also limited because it is stereotypical that “broken” English is connected to being illiterate. Although English as a second language results in incorrect or simple speech, Tan argues later in this passage that this is an inaccurate assumption of a person’s intelligence.

“I had succeeded where it counted when my mother finished reading my book and gave me her verdict: ‘So easy to read.’”

The author wanted to write a book with the presumption that her audience will be composed of readers like her mother. Tan states that she had “succeeded where it counted”, which translates to the fact that her style of writing does not have to be unnecessarily complicated to unfold a simple truth or story.

  • Speaker: Describe the speaker or the author of the text. How strong of a voice does the speaker have? What details does the speaker reveal about him/herself? Why is it important that the audience knows who this speaker is? Minimum of 3 sentences. Include 3 quotes as evidence and explain what each quote tells us about the speaker.

Amy Tan's Journey: From Self-Consciousness to Creative Writing

Amy Tan comes from an immigrant family and lived with her mother in childhood who spoke “broken” English. Although this forced Tan to experience a learning curve and underperform on English standardized tests, Tan ventured into a career of creative writing and publishes The Joy Luck Club. The audience is aware of the qualities of Tan’s background that explain her unique interpretation of language and variation of Englishes. Tan understands that her mother’s words, seemingly choppy or limited, are woven with complex thoughts and ideas that surpass the acute view of a typical English speaker.

“I believed that her English reflected the quality of what she had to say That is because she expressed them imperfectly her thoughts were imperfect.”

During Tan’s childhood, she was self-conscious because of her mother’s language. Evidently, this provides a reflective trait of the author as she addresses her ignorance at a young age. Adolescent Amy Tan failed to recognize the hardships of her immigrant parent because she followed the same prejudice as her peers towards non-native English speakers. She describes her mother’s thoughts as imperfect, alluding that her thoughts were of a similar quality to her English.

“I started writing nonfiction as a freelancer the week after I was told by my former boss that writing was my worst skill...”

The author challenges ethnic stereotypes by committing to a career in writing than the typical science or math major that’s common for Asians. Her passion for writing and language also allows her to appreciate and understand her mother’s language. Beneath her mother’s “broken” English, Tan was able to uncover the unspoken meaning behind her mother’s words and construct a new perception of her mother’s intelligence.

“But to me, my mother’s English is perfectly clear, perfectly natural.”

This reveals the form of English the speaker learned due to growing up with her mother’s language. The author believes that there are variations of Englishes that people subconsciously switch to depending on who they’re addressing. Some don’t understand her mother’s English, but this sort of language is recognizable to individuals who have immigrant parents. This is one aspect that contributes to the author’s Chinese-American background.

  • Subject: Describe the subject of the book. What is it about? Explain major concepts or events depicted in the book. Minimum of 3 sentences. Include 3 quotes as evidence and explain the concept or event shown in each.

The Subject of "Mother Tongue": Language as Identity and Barrier

“Mother Tongue” by Amy Tan describes her experiences growing up with her mother’s English that affected her writing, diction, and life. Tan found herself struggling with the form of English taught in school due to her home environment and her mother’s “broken” English. Though, this did not prevent Tan from pursuing a career in writing and creating a book focused on appealing to an audience like her mother. Tan argues that the intelligence of a person is not measured by their English, using her mother as an example. She also recalls memories of the disadvantages her mother faced because of her “broken” English.

“... language spoken in the family, especially in immigrant families which are more insular, plays a large role in shaping the language of the child.”

Language within an immigrant family is defined as “simple” or “broken” compared to the form of English practiced in higher education. Consequently, children who come from immigrant families experience a culture shock when adjusting to a more formal language. This is relatable to the author, who upon completing English standardized tests, suffered difficulty, unlike others due to her home environment. Her mother was only able to speak “broken” English around her.

“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.”

The author claims that language comprehension transcends standardized testing, which depicts a flawed image of one’s knowledge. Tan regards as true the power and weight of language that cannot be translated by a superficial test. As a result, she believes that her mother’s language, although some may view it as uneducated, accepts it as her level of English attempting to grasp her level of intelligence, which is much higher.

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· “My mother has long realized the limitations of her English as well… she used to have me call people on the phone to pretend I was she.”

Tan’s mother, an immigrant in America where English is her second language, is forced to adapt and acknowledge the disdainful perception people see her. She is fully aware of the type of behavior people present toward a non-native English speaker. Because of this, she knows that her daughter will receive a higher degree of respect because she’s fluent in English. Thus, she allows her to imitate her while speaking on the phone.

  • Audience: Describe the intended audience for the book. Why would the speaker address this particular audience? What does this audience believe or value? Minimum of 3 sentences. Include 2 quotes as evidence and explain how each quote is directed towards a particular audience.

Challenging Stereotypes: The Intended Audience and Purpose

The intended audience of “Mother Tongue” by Amy Tan is readers who aren’t aware of the mistreatment towards non-native English speakers by a society that necessitates educating them about tolerance. Tan aspires to inform her audience about the difficulties people who are fluent in English can’t relate to by narrating her mother’s encounters with people who undermined her for her “broken” English. The author addresses the struggles and prejudices towards non-native English speakers that mislead society labeling them as unscholarly.

“She said she had spoken very good English, her best English, with no mistakes. Still, she said, the hospital did not apologize when they said they had lost the CAT scan…”

The hospital faculty did not correctly express hospitality towards Tan’s mother, which is heavily implied due to her “broken” English. She is treated more rudely and the hospital worker only complicated her request of uncovering her CAT scan because they lost it. This is an example of how non-native English speakers face challenges that are only targeted to their group, like how this hospital did not aid her with a serious matter.

“... when the doctor finally called her daughter, me, who spoke in perfect English… we had assurances the CAT scan would be found...”

Tan’s intervention regarding the retrieval of her mother’s CAT scan completely contrasts with her mother’s confrontation with the hospital. Instead of not offering many options, acting uninvested, and refusing to apologize, the doctor responded to the daughter with kindness and helpfulness. The author includes this experience because it displays the disadvantages of being a non-native English speaker where it’s harder to have people respect you, resulting in poor service in a hospital.

  • Diction: Choose 2 quotes that are typical of the author’s use of diction (word choice). Explain the quotes, showing what the words mean and the impact of the specific word choice on the text.

“I am not a scholar of English or literature. I cannot give you much more than personal opinions on the English language and its variation in this country or others.”

Tan utilizes the rhetorical appeal of ethos that immediately befriends the reader at the same level of intelligence by not holding herself to a scholarly title. This establishes the informal tone throughout the passage that is also meant to accommodate readers like Tan’s mother, a non-native English speaker.

“He comes to my wedding. I didn’t see it, I heard it. I went to the boy’s side, they have YMCA dinner. Chinese age I was nineteen.”

Tan’s transcript of her mother’s English is meant as an example of how some may find her language hard to understand. It is a sample of a person who speaks English as their second language and how it may differ from the type of English spoken fluently. This also explains how as Tan was growing up, she was exposed to a different type of English that inevitably carved her unique journey in learning English at school.

  • Tone: Choose 2 quotes to analyze for tone. Describe the author’s tone (attitude towards his/her topic). State the specific tone used and analyze the impact of the tone on the text.

“... my mother’s ‘limited’ English limited my perception of her. I was ashamed of her English.”

The author’s tone is meant to unearth the immaturity of her young self because she used to be embarrassed that her mother’s English was hard to understand. She was ashamed of how she had to speak on the phone acting like her mother so that other people respected her. Further, in life, Tan notices more of the splitting difference in treatment her mother, a non-native English speaker, receives in comparison to her.

“I wanted to capture what language ability tests can never reveal: her intent, her imagery, the rhythms of her speech, and the nature of her thoughts.”

Towards the end of the passage, Tan transitions to a more appreciative, reflective, and proud tone. She is grateful for her Chinese-American background, even though she has to confront several obstacles due to being raised by an immigrant parent. Although Tan was embarrassed by her mother when she was younger, she has grown a praiseful perception of her. The author recognizes that non-native English speakers may not speak as fluently as native English speakers, but their thoughts and ideas are equally as valuable and valid nonetheless.

  • Purpose: Explain the purpose of the text. What was the author hoping to accomplish? What does the author want to audience to think/feel/do/believe? Explain in a minimum of 3 sentences. Include 2 quotes as evidence and explain how each quote shows the author’s purpose.

The purpose of the text is to enlighten the audience about daily disadvantages and misjudgment towards non-native English speakers by society. Tan summarizes outsiders’ views on people like her mother that highlights the general mistreatment and social inequality they endure. Additionally, “Mother Tongue” informs the reader of the impact of her mother’s language that resulted in stunting her English as well. Although Tan struggled with English at school, this did not terminate her ambition in the process of becoming a writer. Tan hoped to accomplish the acceptance of non-native English speakers as educated individuals, despite their unique version of the speech, and encourage other Asian Americans to take interest in other fields other than math and science.

“You should know that my mother’s expressive command of English belies how much she actually understands. She reads the Forbes report…”

The author explains that her mother’s structure of English contradicts the vastness of her consciousness by absorbing advanced media like The New York Times. This supports Tan’s claim of her mother’s knowledge succeeds the English she uses to express it.

“... ‘fractured’ English… as if it were damaged, and needed to be fixed as if it lacked a certain wholeness and soundness.”


Directed toward her audience, the author intends on educating the misinformed that “broken” English should be respected as fluent English. The author points out that in today’s society, people often view “broken” English as imperfect, resulting in judging a person’s character based on their language. Though, the judgment is faultily made because “fractured” English does not mean the speaker lacks constructed thoughts.

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Mother Tongue: Essay Summary. (2022, December 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 1, 2024, from
“Mother Tongue: Essay Summary.” Edubirdie, 27 Dec. 2022,
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Mother Tongue: Essay Summary [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 27 [cited 2024 Mar 1]. Available from:
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