AP – Mother Tongue Amy Tan

In class, we responsed to this quote and then discussed before jumping into the Tan assignment.

Don’t live up to your stereotypes.

~Sherman Alexie

Please read and annotate Mother Tongue by Amy Tan. Then conduct a comment conversation. I have started the comments, but feel free to go in any direction.

Alexie CBS interview

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25 thoughts on “AP – Mother Tongue Amy Tan

  1. Language as part of identity certainly is fluid for me. There are places in time where I can hear my catch phrase of the moment and I see what it says about me and my relationships. The terms, even, we use at home that both boys would be mortified if we used in public. Drew snaps his head and glares when I slip and call him “Boo” in the middle of Target, fearing his cool just dropped seventeen points with the red-shirted men behind the electronic counter.

  2. I can relate to Amy’s stories 100%. My parents both have fantastic English, especially for people who didn’t step foot in the USA until they were in their 20s – and yet I used to feel embarrassed when they mixed up “he” and “she” while speaking, or anything of the like (FYI: in Chinese speech, there is no differentiation of gender when referring to the third person). Over time, I’ve realized just how amazing my parents are for being completely bilingual (my Chinese, although proficient, can’t even compare to their English).

    Another connection: At home, my family speaks fluent “Chinglish” – a mix of Chinese and English. Without even noticing it, we shift from Chinese to English and back again within a single sentence. (Non-Chinese visitors usually find that pretty amusing.) We have truly created our own personal language – my “mother tongue.”

  3. I think it’s sad that our society defines people’s ability based on how good their English is. I also grew up in a home where my mother doesn’t speak perfect English and I always get slightly annoyed when I have to remind her how to pronounce certain things and how certain verbs work in certain sentences and I know that she didn’t grow up in this country but I still expect her to know everything because everyone else I talk to does. And when non-English speakers take standardized tests they are also expected to know everything, but not only do they have to understand the question, but they also have to translate it, and that’s not fair to them. That’s my two cents on Tan:)

  4. Hydra 1: There is an important distinction between thinking that you have two identities (hehe) – there is no “me at home” and “me at school,” we’re still the same person wherever we are.

    Hydra 2: Language is more of a reflection of who we’re with. It’s human nature to adapt to our surroundings, especially to make others more comfortable (becoming part of a group). Thus, it would be natural to change the language used when at home and at school to accommodate for differences.

    ~ Emnie

  5. I’m another person speaking from the perspective of immigrant parents. However, I am under the impression that sometimes my mother allows her immigrant status and “poor” english to limit her. She is constantly under the impression that she is being judged and stereotyped because she is obviously from another country. She has been learning English since the first grade and while it is not her first language, she speaks well despite a few pronunciation flaws. Whenever she receives even mildly poor customer service, she believes she it is because of her foreign status. While I completely agree that one cannot judge intellect solely based on how well someone speaks English, I also think that immigrants should not be assumptive.

  6. In my family,technically, the only language we are fluent in is English. But sometimes I find it hard to believe we are fluent. I find myself correcting my 50 year old father on grammar and pronunciation, all the time. My sister had the hardest time speaking English when she was younger; I used to have to translate her for the world. She knew what she wanted to say, but she could not manage to formulate the words in the way everyone could understand. For some it is hard to say what theyare thinking, when they think in another language or in the same language they are speaking.

  7. I agree with the Hydra. 🙂 Depending on who I’m with (particularly which of my friend groups) I can switch between saying “like” every other word to using massive words to using slang that I picked up because I spend way too much time on the internet. No matter what “voice” I’m using the conversation can still be intelligent, but if someone was to listen in they may think I’m dumb because of my language. I think stereotypes can easily emerge because of society tends to judge how fluent someone is in English. For example, there’s many ignorant twitter accounts that are based on broken English. These are meant to be funny but they perpetrate stereotypes and racism. And that’s just pathetic. 😦 But it’s kind of interesting how Americans, with our richly diverse population, are still quick to judge people’s ability to speak English.

    • I just found a typo… ***because society tends to judge***

    • I agree with Kita on how stereotypes emerge because of the fact that society judges someone based on how fluent they are in English, which is ridiculous. I like to look at the other side of this though. In high school many people take a language to further their education in a way that has a potential to be very useful in future careers, but some students take it as a joke and are like “haha yeah I speak Spanish!” In truth, when things like that are said, they only know a few words, sometimes sentences in Spanish, or whatever language they claim they can “speak.” Those whose primary language is not English, but in this case we will say Spanish, probably look at those people and think that they are either making fun of their language or they judge them on the fact that they aren’t “prefect Spanish speakers.” I just don’t know why people go straight to judging others based on language fluency because more than likely if you travel the world, you will be placed in the same position as the person you judged.

    • INTERNET SPEAK, yes, Kita, I do this too. I have actually unironically said “el-oh-el” using my actual real-life voice. Yikes.
      In all seriousness, though, there is a real problem in this society with making judgement about someone based on the way they speak. I am not a child of immigrant parents or grandparents, but my parents both hail from tiny Oklahoma villages. They way they grew up talking is frowned upon as “idiot-speak”-my grandparents are often at the butt end of disrespect from yanks who snort derisively at their drawl. My father in particular slips into this mode-except, of course, for during work when he adopts a strictly neutral way of speaking. He wouldn’t want to be labeled as an ignorant redneck. All the college degrees in the world couldn’t prove he isn’t. I myself am even guilty of correcting my dad when he says something like “it went good” or rolling my eyes at the quaint terms of my aunts and uncles. It’s true that what you have to say stops mattering if you don’t have the ideal means of communicating it. This situation can’t possibly compare to those like Ms. Tan’s, but I can draw a connection to my own life, at least slightly. It’s amazing how powerful even the perceived “quality” of language can be.

  8. In formal conversation I have to make an effort not to correct ‘broken’ English and I’ve actually been lucky as far as how people have taken that. I was talking to an Italian man about learning English as a second language and he said ‘catched’ and the word ‘caught’ came out of my mouth before I could even think about how long I’d known this person but luckily he wasn’t offended and thanked me for correcting him so he could improve his English. And then when I’m on my phone talking to my friends I use ‘textspeak’ and my grammar is awful and I feel like a huge hypocrite. One of the toughest things about English especially is knowing what level to use and the group we’re addressing definitely affects the level of English we choose to use (friends on FB vs. complete strangers trying to learn English).

  9. I related a lot to Tan, especially when she started talking about her mom’s efforts to learn English, because my parents have done the same thing. It amazes me how they were able to learn a language so quickly, especially when they grew up speaking two other languages. The fact that people are able to learn such a difficult language like English should be appreciated, not ridiculed.

    I’ve found it amusing that people tend to judge each other on English speaking abilities, as if one language is superior to another. It makes very little sense to me. Think about a world where everyone spoke the same language (and quite frankly, we’re starting to become that way); it would be quite boring. The diversity of language should be celebrated, because language creates cultures, and cultures create diversity. Even though English is such a common language, that doesn’t mean a person that is not fluent has less ability than someone who is.

  10. Language was created specifically to allow for communication. Tan refers to her mothers tongue as her “intimate language”. When people speak in “broken” english, as Tan says, it can be difficult for non-family members to understand what the person is trying to say. They may become dismissive simply because they feel awkward about not being able to communicate properly. Humans are intrinsically social in nature. Without communication, the ability to be socialize decreases drastically. This can make a person uncomfortable and, naturally, humans attempt to remove themselves from uncomfortable circumstances. I don’t think dismissiveness is intended to be harmful or judgmental all the time.

  11. I love when Amy talks about calling what we would call ‘broken’ English ‘limited’ English. I saw a political speech entirely in French and when it was finished, everyone was standing and cheering. I, of course, had no idea what the person had said but everyone else who could understand had, and they really responding to it. If this candidate had tried to give the same speech in English, I don’t know if it would’ve had the same effect. The speaker’s vocabulary would not likely be able to directly express what the speaker was saying as thoroughly as it was in French. Just because someone isn’t expressing themselves perfectly in English doesn’t mean that they don’t have something good to say.

    Side note: I always love watching the interviews of world class athletes at the Olympics. These people are from all over the world and these English reporters are shoving microphones in their faces, frantically asking English questions and demanding English responses. It’s incredible that they can even piece together a ‘limited’ response. Whenever my sister or I would question when they were saying ‘um’ so much, my parents would always tell us to think of someone coming up to us from the athlete’s country and asking us questions in their tongue. Of course I can’t begin to understand anything about Hungarian or Portuguese, and I’m far from being able to construct even the most rudimentary sentences. And yet almost every athlete can on some level express themselves even if it’s not exactly what they mean. Growing up with English has been a great gift because of the wide use of English throughout the world, but I think it has also limited us because we aren’t as open to learning about other languages- there isn’t a necessity.

  12. I was surprised by how big of an impact the limitations of ones English can affect ones interactions with people. For instance, when Tan described her experiences with her mom and the stock broker, or when they were at the hospital. I find it sad that the staff members showed no sympathy towards them for losing their CAT scan until her daughter was dragged into the mess, simply because of her “broken English”. Why is society like this?

  13. My mind was still on stereotyping from the writing we did previously to reading this, so when I read the line on page 77 that stated, “I’ve heard other terms used, “limited English,” for example. But they seem just as bad, as if everything is limited, including people’s perceptions of the limited English speaker.” It brought my mind back to stereotyping. Society would write her mom’s English off as limited, but they do not get the opportunity to see her true personality due to this. Therefore, they label her as a “limited English speaker” and all of the perceptions of that stereotype are attached to her. Most people will not know how to break down these barriers that are created by language. Often times the laziness factor prevents us from drilling holes in that barrier to try and figure out what that “limited English speaker” is truly trying to say.

    • As with Jamila Lyiscott, Tan’s use of “limited English” is a part of her. She should not be judged differently because of that, nor should anyone. English has become the all-pervasive “mother tongue”. Those that can’t speak it as well as others deserve congratulations, not our judgement. They have done what most of us have not, and learned a second language.

  14. Tan identifies as someone “who has always loved language” and I identify myself similarly. When she discussed the different Englishes she uses she kept reiterating the equal importance of every variation. Even, maybe, a greater importance for the “broken” or “limited English” she used as it marks her heritage and represents her family and what she grew up with. Despite that society sees Tan’s mother as someone who only speaks in “broken English,” Tan sees beyond this stereotypical judgment, she sees that her mom’s language is “vivid, direct, full of observation and imagery.” After reading this, after discovering that I too use different Englishes in my life, I have come to realize that the different Englishes themselves are relative- they represents part of us, sure but don’t even come close to defining us as people. It’s really the meaning behind the language that counts, the “intent, passion, imagery, the rhythms o speech, and the nature of thought.” I think this was what Tan was trying to get at all along.

  15. “Perfect English” was what I wanted to achieve when I got here in America 5 years ago. When I learned how to speak English after a couple of years, I kept looking back to the days when I understood nothing from my 7th grade teachers. My understanding(speaking, reading, and comprehension) of English got a little better in 8th grade, but I still didn’t fully understand it. I can fully relate to what Tam was saying. Limitations on what you can say affects the way you communicate with others. Sometimes it is hard to speak your mind fully without having to think for a second of what you are going to say so people will not judge you. I will not deny it, but I have judged others for their accent. Everybody has done it, specially if you are a careful listener. Being a good listener is a very good thing though, because, from my own experience, people will like you more. Having limitations in English taught me how to be a better listener. It will always be up to us though how we are going to deal with our own consciousness. Either we keep judging others, or accept them for who they are because that is all what we can do. The society has spoken; we will judge others. No matter where you come from, people will judge you, because society will always have a definition for what you are. Although this is true, there will always be people that will be there for you no matter what, just like Tan to her mother.

  16. I do not have immigrant parents, so I cannot relate to Tan in that respect, however that’s not to say I don’t relate to her belief in the power of language. As expressed in Jamila Lyiscott’s spoken word, articulation has become a method of identification and a basis for stereotypes in our society. For someone who speaks fluent English and is pretty well-educated, I find it shocking and shameful that while reading Tan and listening to Lyiscott I found myself recognizing that I have judged people based on the way they speak while I myself often have trouble articulating precisely what I want to say. I believe that Caroline hit it right on when she said “it’s really the meaning behind the language that counts.” It’s not about what someone does or doesn’t say or how they say it; rather, it’s about why they say it – what their intent and passion is.

  17. Tan refers to her mothers tongue as her “intimate language”. I was struck by this phrase. I have always thought intimate language would contain words such as “love” or “eternity” or “you mean the world to me”, but Tan proved me wrong. These words only mean something because the people exchanging them give them value; the couple could say “cupcake” and convey the same message if they wanted! Intimate language simply implies a bond between two (or more) people.
    “Whats up” no longer shows true concern because it is too generic of a phrase. What makes an exchange special is that it is unique. It goes deeper than the surface and really makes a connection between the people interacting in the conversation. This is intimate language.
    Intimate langue is not the words “love” or “forever” said because of expectations or out of habit. These are empty air waves. This is superficial politeness. Intimate language goes deeper. Tan has formed this “intimate language” because it reminders her of all the memories, all the events that shaped her; it communicates the connection between her and those who she has allowed to share her life with.

  18. I definitely find it interesting how Tan brings up that we judge the validity of people’s thoughts based on their ability to express them.

    Language is not just an expression of thought but also of culture and identity. We are very likely to judge and make our own assumptions on people based on their usage of a particular language. Neither of my parents are native English speakers, and despite both of their extensive academic histories, their “broken English” sounds distinctly uneducated.

    On the other side of coin, there are also instances where weak, arguments lack substance but try and stand on the basis of eloquence and excellency of speech. I have most definitely seen debates that are less of an intellectual pursuit and exploration and more of a boxing match to see who can throw the biggest, most confusing, most “educated”, most “intellectual” words into a somewhat understandable sentence.

  19. I simply like when Tan didn’t like to say “broken” english, because it didn’t justify her mothers communication skills. People don’t have to understand you completely to be able to communicate.

  20. My sister studied abroad in Chile in her third year of college. She became completely fluent in Spanish however, she became completely fluent in Chilean Spanish. When she returned, I tried to sustain a conversation in Spanish. She had learned so much slang and different Spanish expressions that were not in a textbook that it made it almost impossible to follow and understand her. Once she realized that I could not understand her, she was able to switch from chilean spanish to textbook spanish. My spanish was very “broken” yet my sister didn’t have trouble understanding me or talking to me. When one of her friends from Chile called her, my sister talked so quickly and used so much slang that I couldn’t tell she was speaking spanish. After reading Tan’s experience, I realized I had experienced what Tan’s Mother had experienced at a smaller scale. I am able to read and listen to spanish, but speaking is difficult.

    My sister often talked about her beginning months in Chile. People tried to talk to her in english or judged her based on her broken spanish. Until she learned how to speak Chilean Spanish, people didn’t take her seriously or listen to her. I find it frustrating that society does this to people who talk differently or act differently then the surrounding culture.

  21. I have always been very good at English. This isn’t a huge surprise, as it’s the only language spoken in my home, but I did read pretty constantly as a hobby when I was young. As a result, most grammatical rules and vocabulary terms come easily to me. I am a fish in water with the English language, and find myself at a huge advantage on standardized tests. It’s rare for me to ever find myself in a position where I have to worry about being sure that I am using correct language.

    I went to Norway and the Netherlands two summers ago. Everyone spoke English, but I still felt very uncomfortable with my language and accept so clearly defining me as “out of place.” Especially in the Netherlands, which I visited with friends who spoke Dutch, I tried to avoid speaking so that I could pretend I belonged. There was one point where I tried to order a popsicle, and my friends told me the one word that I would need to use. I went up to the vendors and asked for a popsicle, cringing at the clearly incorrect sound that came out of my mouth. They laughed and handed one to me, and I walked away cringing. My friends assured me that the laugh wasn’t intended to be rude; the vendors just found my attempt at Dutch “cute,” but that didn’t make it any less awkward.

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