In this literacy narrative, Amy Tan explores her language and identity by reflecting on her mother’s language use. Tan writes that,

“Lately, I’ve been giving more thought to the kind of English my mother speaks. Like others, I have described it to people as ‘broken” or “fractured” English. But 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 fixed, as if it lacked a certain wholeness and soundness. 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.”

Tan begins by developing her authority “not [as] a scholar of English or literature,” but as a writer and lover of language. She also tacitly develops expertise through the reflection on her and her mother’s experiences. She discusses the negative perceptions of her mother because of her “limited” or “broken” English as well as her mother’s different levels of fluency—she can read Forbes, but speaks with a heavy accent. Tan also considers how her mother’s English may have resulted in limitations for herself. As an Asian American student, Tan was immediately put in accelerated math classes, but discouraged from pursuing English or literature. However, Tan took charge of her own literacy, despite cultural expectations, assumptions, and prejudices.

For a translingual classroom, there are some obvious connections with language acquisition and cultural expectations based on language use. While Tan does not code-mesh in this piece, she does reflect on her personal experiences with language. The title of the essay, “Mother Tongue,” could also open up a discussion about popular notions of “mother tongue.” Many people assume that individuals have a single “first” language, which comes along with a national and cultural identity. However, with globalization, migration, and diaspora you can no longer assume that someone grew up speaking a single language or that that language is associated with their national, cultural, or ethnic identity. Tan’s play on the term “mother tongue” provides an entryway into this conversation.

You can find Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” online through CUNY.

If you have the time and inclination, this piece can be paired with Amy Tan’s TED talk “Where Does Creativity Hide?” In the talk, Tan explores the concept and science of creativity, while considering her own creative process. This would be especially suited for a translingual creative writing or literature class.

Reading: Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue”
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