A Word on Language Prejudice: A Review of Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue”

If you’ve read any of my other reviews (or any of my work at all, really), you’re probably familiar with my mother: the stunning, savvy, Israeli cosmetologist, whose brilliance surpasses that of her art. Her wisdom is so apparent, her intelligence so easily gleaned through her speech -- the difficulty being that most Americans have a tough time understanding her.


My mother’s way of speaking is familiar to me. Her heavy Middle Eastern accent and “incorrect” grammar are components of my second language: I understand her English as easily as I understand that of a native speaker. However, I also recognize the effect that her idiosyncratic English has had on her experience in America -- the prejudice she faces in everyday encounters; the stigma surrounding her foreign speech she’s learned to internalize; the “evidence” she receives that her English is inherently lesser, because she doesn’t speak a standard English. That’s something called language prejudice, and it’s a force that’s ever-present and ever-pervasive in her life.

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I think that’s why I was so moved by Amy Tan’s nonfiction essay, “Mother Tongue”. As an Asian-American writer, Tan engages with issues around language and identity through her work. This piece in particular, published in 1990, explores Tan’s complicated relationship with language, raised by a Chinese immigrant mother whose English is markedly non-compliant with Standard American English, an idealized form of English imposed by dominant institutions. That’s the language we are taught in school; that’s the language we are told is the “correct” way of speaking; that’s the language that, through years of internalizing the ideologies that surround it, we are conditioned to believe is uniquely whole. Anything that deviates from it is, by consequence, broken.


With her “foreign” sentence construction and lexical choices, Tan’s mother deviates from that standard -- and Tan demonstrates how that deviation has led her own prejudice towards her mom. She writes, “Like others, I have described [her English] to people as ‘broken’ or ‘fractured’...  when I was growing up, my mother’s ‘limited’ English limited my perception of her,” (Tan 516). This acknowledgement is as heartbreaking as it is important -- because we all have language prejudice, we are all influenced by standard language ideologies, whether or not we recognize it.


Tan very aptly delineates this in her piece, providing examples of how the world has shown her that her mother is inferior, because of her English. She illustrates how her mother is not only treated differently, but treated disrespectfully: “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 516). It’s an experience common in the immigrant speaker’s experience in America, one common in my own mother’s life -- even after twenty five years of living here.

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This piece is important. It’s important because it brings to the forefront a prejudice that we all hold, but one of which few of us are aware. And only by recognizing our prejudice can we begin countering it. At the end of the piece, Tan reflects upon the influence of a standard language ideology on Asian American writers, questioning their of lack representation in American literature. She ruminates, perhaps “there are other Asian-American students whose English spoken in the home might also be described as ‘broken’ or ‘limited’... perhaps they also have teachers who are steering them away from writing,” (Tan 518). Punished for utilizing a stigmatized variety, her English will always be lesser, and this persistent denigration might deter her from pursuing her art. However, in sharing this piece, Tan offers an alternate perspective: her mother’s English has contributed to her own unique voice as a writer. It is one of the many “Englishes [she] grew up with,” (Tan 519) and one which she acknowledges has contributed to her success as an artist. Tan works towards empowering other minority writers, perhaps hindered by language prejudice, to embrace their linguistic idiosyncrasies, instead of degrade them. By writing and circulating this piece in a public context, Tan claims authority over her language, and encourages other minority writers, and minority speakers, to do the same.


Again, this is an important piece. True to Tan’s artistic voice, it’s eloquently written and an enjoyable read, but mostly, it’s important. And I appreciate its notoriety: for my sake, for my mother’s sake and for the sake of those who share her experience.