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Mother Tongue, by Amy Tan

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.
I am a writer. And by that defnition, I am someone who has always loved language. I am fascinated by
language in daily life. I spend a great deal of my time thinking about the power of language the way it
can evoke an emotion, a visual image, a comple! idea, or a simple truth. "anguage is the tool of my trade.
And I use them all all the Englishes I grew up with.
#ecently, I was made keenly aware of the di$erent Englishes I do use. I was giving a talk to a large group
of people, the same talk I had already given to half a do%en other groups. The nature of the talk was about
my writing, my life, and my book, The Joy Luck Club. The talk was going along well enough, until I
remembered one ma&or di$erence that made the whole talk sound wrong. My mother was in the room. And
it was perhaps the frst time she had heard me give a lengthy speech, using the kind of English I have never
used with her. I was saying things like, 'The intersection of memory upon imagination' and 'There is an
aspect of my fction that relates to thusandthus(a speech flled with carefully wrought grammatical
phrases, burdened, it suddenly seemed to me, with nominali%ed forms, past perfect tenses, conditional
phrases, all the forms of standard English that I had learned in school and through books, the forms of
English I did not use at home with my mother.
)ust last week, I was walking down the street with my mother, and I again found myself conscious of the
English I was using, the English I do use with her. *e were talking about the price of new and used
furniture and I heard myself saying this+ ',ot waste money that way.' My husband was with us as well, and
he didn(t notice any switch in my English. And then I reali%ed why. It(s because over the twenty years we(ve
been together I(ve often used that same kind of English with him, and sometimes he even uses it with me. It
has become our language of intimacy, a di$erent sort of English that relates to family talk, the language I
grew up with.
-o you(ll have some idea of what this family talk I heard sounds like, I(.. /uote what my mother said
during a recent conversation which I videotaped and then transcribed. 0uring this conversation, my mother
was talking about a political gangster in -hanghai who had the same last name as her family(s, 0u, and how
the gangster in his early years wanted to be adopted by her family, which was rich by comparison. "ater,
the gangster became more powerful, far richer than my mother(s family, and one day showed up at my
mother(s wedding to pay his respects. 1ere(s what she said in part+ '0u 2usong having business like fruit
stand. "ike o$ the street kind. 1e is 0u like 0u 3ong but not Tsungming Island people. The local people
call putong, the river east side, he belong to that side local people. That man want to ask 0u 3ong father
take him in like become own family. 0u 3ong father wasn(t look down on him, but didn(t take seriously,
until that man big like become a mafa. ,ow important person, very hard to inviting him. 4hinese way,
came only to show respect, don(t stay for dinner. #espect for making big celebration, he shows up. Mean
gives lots of respect. 4hinese custom. 4hinese social life that way. If too important won(t have to stay too
long. 1e come to my wedding. I didn(t see, I heard it. I gone to boy(s side, they have 2M4A dinner.
4hinese age I was nineteen.'
2ou should know that my mother(s e!pressive command of English belies how much she actually
understands. -he reads the 5orbes report, listens to *all -treet *eek, converses daily with her stockbroker,
reads all of -hirley Mac"aine(s books with easeall kinds of things I can(t begin to understand. 2et some of
my friends tell me they understand 67 percent of what my mother says. -ome say they understand 87 to 97
percent. -ome say they understand none of it, as if she were speaking pure 4hinese. :ut to me, my mother(s
English is perfectly clear, perfectly natural. It(s my mother tongue. 1er 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,
e!pressed things, made sense of the world.
"ately, I(ve been giving more thought to the kind of English my mother speaks. "ike others, I have
described it to people as (broken' or 'fractured' English. :ut I wince when I say that. It has always
bothered me that I can think of no way to describe it other than 'broken,' as if it were damaged and needed
to be f!ed, as if it lacked a certain wholeness and soundness. I(ve heard other terms used, 'limited
English,' for e!ample. :ut they seem &ust as bad, as if everything is limited, including people(s perceptions
of the limited English speaker.
I know this for a fact, because when I was growing up, my mother(s 'limited' English limited my
perception of her. I was ashamed of her English. I believed that her English re;ected the /uality of what
she had to say That is, because she e!pressed them imperfectly her thoughts were imperfect. And I had
plenty of empirical evidence to support me+ the fact that 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.
My mother has long reali%ed the limitations of her English as well. *hen I was ffteen, she used to have me
call people on the phone to pretend I was she. In this guise, I was forced to ask for information or even to
complain and yell at people who had been rude to her. <ne time it was a call to her stockbroker in ,ew
2ork. -he had cashed out her small portfolio and it &ust so happened we were going to go to ,ew 2ork the
ne!t week, our very frst trip outside 4alifornia. I had to get on the phone and say in an adolescent voice
that was not very convincing, 'This is Mrs. Tan.'
And my mother was standing in the back whispering loudly, '*hy he don(t send me check, already two
weeks late. -o mad he lie to me, losing me money.
And then I said in perfect English, '2es, I(m getting rather concerned. 2ou had agreed to send the check
two weeks ago, but it hasn(t arrived.'
Then she began to talk more loudly. '*hat he want, I come to ,ew 2ork tell him front of his boss, you
cheating me=' And I was trying to calm her down, make her be /uiet, while telling the stockbroker, 'I can(t
tolerate any more e!cuses. If I don(t receive the check immediately, I am going to have to speak to your
manager when I(m in ,ew 2ork ne!t week.' And sure enough, the following week there we were in front of
this astonished stockbroker, and I was sitting there redfaced and /uiet, and my mother, the real Mrs. Tan,
was shouting at his boss in her impeccable broken English.
*e used a similar routine &ust fve days ago, for a situation that was far less humorous. My mother had
gone to the hospital for an appointment, to fnd out about a benign brain tumor a 4AT scan had revealed a
month ago. -he said she had spoken very good English, her best English, no mistakes. -till, she said, the
hospital did not apologi%e when they said they had lost the 4AT scan and she had come for nothing. -he
said they did not seem to have any sympathy when she told them she was an!ious to know the e!act
diagnosis, since her husband and son had both died of brain tumors. -he said they would not give her any
more information until the ne!t time and she would have to make another appointment for that. -o she said
she would not leave until the doctor called her daughter. -he wouldn(t budge. And when the doctor fnally
called her daughter, me, who spoke in perfect English lo and behold we had assurances the 4AT scan
would be found, promises that a conference call on Monday would be held, and apologies for any su$ering
my mother had gone through for a most regrettable mistake.
I think my mother(s English almost had an e$ect on limiting my possibilities in life as well. -ociologists
and linguists probably will tell you that a person(s developing language skills are more in;uenced by peers.
:ut I do think that the language spoken in the family, especially in immigrant families which are more
insular, plays a large role in shaping the language of the child. And I believe that it a$ected my results on
achievement tests, I.>. tests, and the -AT. *hile my English skills were never &udged as poor, compared to
math, English could not be considered my strong suit. In grade school I did moderately well, getting
perhaps :(s, sometimes :pluses, in English and scoring perhaps in the si!tieth or seventieth percentile on
achievement tests. :ut those scores were not good enough to override the opinion that my true abilities lay
in math and science, because in those areas I achieved A(s and scored in the ninetieth percentile or higher.
This was understandable. Math is precise? there is only one correct answer. *hereas, for me at least, the
answers on English tests were always a &udgment call, a matter of opinion and personal e!perience. Those
tests were constructed around items like fllintheblank sentence completion, such as, 'Even though Tom
was, Mary thought he was .' And the correct answer always seemed to be the most bland combinations of
thoughts, for e!ample, 'Even though Tom was shy, Mary thought he was charming+( with the grammatical
structure 'even though' limiting the correct answer to some sort of semantic opposites, so you wouldn(t get
answers like, 'Even though Tom was foolish, Mary thought he was ridiculous+( *ell, according to my
mother, there were very few limitations as to what Tom could have been and what Mary might have
thought of him. -o I never did well on tests like that
The same was true with word analogies, pairs of words in which you were supposed to fnd some sort of
logical, semantic relationship for e!ample, '-unset is to nightfall as is to .' And here you would be
presented with a list of four possible pairs, one of which showed the same kind of relationship+ red is to
stoplight, bus is to arrival, chills is to fever, yawn is to boring+ *ell, I could never think that way. I knew
what the tests were asking, but I could not block out of my mind the images already created by the frst
pair, 'sunset is to nightfall'and I would see a burst of colors against a darkening sky, the moon rising, the
lowering of a curtain of stars. And all the other pairs of words red, bus, stoplight, boring&ust threw up a
mass of confusing images, making it impossible for me to sort out something as logical as saying+ 'A
sunset precedes nightfall' is the same as 'a chill precedes a fever.' The only way I would have gotten that
answer right would have been to imagine an associative situation, for e!ample, my being disobedient and
staying out past sunset, catching a chill at night, which turns into feverish pneumonia as punishment, which
indeed did happen to me.
I have been thinking about all this lately, about my mother(s English, about achievement tests. :ecause
lately I(ve been asked, as a writer, why there are not more Asian Americans represented in American
literature. *hy are there few Asian Americans enrolled in creative writing programs= *hy do so many
4hinese students go into engineering@ *ell, these are broad sociological /uestions I can(t begin to answer.
:ut I have noticed in surveys in fact, &ust last week that Asian students, as a whole, always do
signifcantly better on math achievement tests than in English. And this makes me think that there are other
AsianAmerican students whose English spoken in the home might also be described as 'broken' or
'limited.' And perhaps they also have teachers who are steering them away from writing and into math and
science, which is what happened to me.
5ortunately, I happen to be rebellious in nature and en&oy the challenge of disproving assumptions made
about me. I became an English ma&or my frst year in college, after being enrolled as premed. I started
writing nonfction as a freelancer the week after I was told by my former boss that writing was my worst
skill and I should hone my talents toward account management.
:ut it wasn(t until .986 that I fnally began to write fction. And at frst I wrote using what I thought to be
wittily crafted sentences, sentences that would fnally prove I had mastery over the English language.
1ere(s an e!ample from the frst draft of a story that later made its way into The )oy "uck 4lub, but without
this line+ 'That was my mental /uandary in its nascent state.' A terrible line, which I can barely pronounce.
5ortunately, for reasons I won(t get into today, I later decided I should envision a reader for the stories I
would write. And the reader I decided upon was my mother, because these were stories about mothers. -o
with this reader in mind and in fact she did read my early draftsI began to write stories using all the
Englishes I grew up with+ the English I spoke to my mother, which for lack of a better term might be
described as 'simple'? the English she used with me, which for lack of a better term might be described as
'broken'? my translation of her 4hinese, which could certainly be described as 'watered down'? and what I
imagined to be her translation of her 4hinese if she could speak in perfect English, her internal language,
and for that I sought to preserve the essence, but neither an English nor a 4hinese structure. I wanted to
capture what language ability tests can never reveal+ her intent, her passion, her imagery, the rhythms of her
speech and the nature of her thoughts.
Apart from what any critic had to say about my writing, I knew I had succeeded where it counted when my
mother fnished reading my book and gave me her verdict+ '-o easy to read.'
Rhetoric is the study of effective speaking and writing And the art of persuasion And !any other things
In its "ong and vigorous history rhetoric has en#oyed !any definitions$ acco!!odated differing purposes$ and varied wide"y in what it inc"uded And yet$ for !ost of its
history it has !aintained its funda!enta" character as a discip"ine for training students %& to perceive how "anguage is at work ora""y and in writing$ and '& to (eco!e
proficient in app"ying the resources of "anguage in their own speaking and writing )See rhetorica" pedagogy&
*iscerning how "anguage is working in others+ or one+s own writing and speaking$ one !ust )artificia""y& divide for! and content$ what is (eing said and how this is said
)see Content,-or!& .ecause rhetoric e/a!ines so attentive"y the how of "anguage$ the methods and means of co!!unication$ it has so!eti!es (een discounted as
so!ething on"y concerned with sty"e or appearances$ and not with the 0ua"ity or content of co!!unication -or !any )such as 1"ato& rhetoric dea"s with the superficia"
at (est$ the deceptive at worst )2!ere rhetoric2&$ when one !ight (etter attend to !atters of su(stance$ truth$ or reason as atte!pted in dia"ectic or phi"osophy or
Rhetoric has so!eti!es "ived down to its critics$ (ut as set forth fro! anti0uity$ rhetoric was a co!prehensive art #ust as !uch concerned with what one cou"d say as
how one !ight say it Indeed$ a (asic pre!ise for rhetoric is the indivisi(i"ity of !eans fro! !eaning3 how one says so!ething conveys !eaning as !uch as what one
says Rhetoric studies the effectiveness of "anguage co!prehensive"y$ inc"uding its e!otiona" i!pact )see pathos&$ as !uch as its propositiona" content ) see "ogos& To
see how "anguage and thought worked together$ however$ it has first (een necessary to artificia""y divide content and for!
CO4TE4T A4* -OR5
Rhetoric re0uires understanding a funda!enta" division (etween what is co!!unicated through "anguage and how this is co!!unicated
Aristot"e phrased this as the difference (etween logos )the "ogica" content of a speech& and lexis )the sty"e and de"ivery of a speech& Ro!an authors such as 6uinti"ian
wou"d !ake the sa!e distinction (y dividing consideration of things or su(stance$ res$ fro! consideration of ver(a" e/pression$ verba
In the Renaissance$ Eras!us of Rotterda! reiterated this foundationa" dichoto!y for rhetorica" ana"ysis (y tit"ing his !ost fa!ous te/t(ook 2On the A(undance of
7er(a" E/pression and Ideas2 )De copia verborum ac rerum& This division has (een one that has (een codified within rhetorica" pedagogy$ reinforced$ for e/a!p"e$ (y
students (eing re0uired in the Renaissance )according to 8uan 9uis 7ives& to keep note(ooks divided into for! and content
Within rhetorica" pedagogy it was the practice of i!itation that !ost re0uired students to ana"y:e for! and content They were asked to o(serve a !ode" c"ose"y and
then to copy the for! (ut supp"y new content3 or to copy the content (ut supp"y a new for! Such i!itations occurred on every "eve" of speech and "anguage$ and forced
students to assess what e/act"y a given for! did to (ring a(out a given !eaning or effect )see I!itation&
The divide (etween for! and content is a"ways an artificia" and conditiona" one$ since u"ti!ate"y atte!pting to !ake this division revea"s the funda!enta""y indivisi("e
nature of ver(a" e/pression and ideas -or e/a!p"e$ when students were asked to perfor! trans"ations as rhetorica" e/ercises$ they ana"y:ed their co!positions in ter!s
of appro/i!ations$ since it is i!possi("e to co!p"ete"y capture the !eaning and effect of a thought e/pressed in any ter!s other than its origina" words
This division is (ased on a view of "anguage as so!ething !ore than si!p"y a !echanistic device for transcri(ing or de"ivering thought With the sophists of ancient
;reece rhetoricians have shared a profound respect for how "anguage affects not #ust audiences$ (ut thought processes
Within the -orest of Rhetoric the c"ose pro/i!ity (etween what is said and how this is said can (e o(served in the continuity (etween topics of invention )concerned
with what is said& and figures of speech )ways of speaking& The figures )often disregarded as superficia" concerns& turn out to (e !icrocos!s of the !ore su(stantive
topics of invention )concerned with what so!eone says& -or e/a!p"e$ a figure of speech such as 2synecdoche2 )in which a part represents a who"e$ such as referring to
one+s car as one+s 2whee"s2& turns out to (e !icrocos! of the topic of invention *ivision$ which inc"udes "ooking at how parts re"ate to who"es
One way to understand the over"apping nature of logos and lexis$ res and verba$ invention and sty"e$ is through the word 2orna!ent2 To our !odern sensi(i"ities this
suggests a superficia"$ inessentia" decoration<<so!ething that !ight (e p"easing (ut which is not tru"y necessary The ety!o"ogy of this word is ornare$ a 9atin ver(
!eaning 2to e0uip2 The orna!ents of war$ for e/a!p"e$ are weapons and so"diers The orna!ents of rhetoric are not e/traneous3 they are the e0uip!ent re0uired to
achieve the intended !eaning or effect
Thus$ rhetoricians divided for! and content not to p"ace content a(ove for!$ (ut to high"ight the interdependence of "anguage and !eaning$ argu!ent and orna!ent$
thought and its e/pression It !eans that "inguistic for!s are not !ere"y instru!enta"$ (ut funda!enta"=not on"y to persuasion$ (ut to thought itse"f
This division is high"y pro("e!atic$ since thought and ideas )res& have (een prioriti:ed over "anguage )verba& since at "east the ti!e of 1"ato in the west Indeed$
"anguage is a funda!enta""y socia" and contingent creature$ su(#ect to change and deve"op!ent in ways that !etaphysica" a(so"utes are not -or rhetoricians to insist
that words and their e/pression are on par with the idea"s and ideas of a(stract phi"osophy has put rhetoric at odds with re"igion$ phi"osophy$ and science at ti!es
4everthe"ess$ rhetoric re0uires attending to the contingencies and conte/ts of specific !o!ents in ti!e and the dyna!ics of hu!an (e"ief and interaction within those
settings This rhetorica" orientation to socia" and te!pora" conditions can (e understood (etter with respect to three enco!passing ter!s within rhetoric that are
funda!enta" to the rhetorica" view of the wor"d> kairos$ audience$ and decoru!