Mother Tongue by Amy Tan
Be Yourself in Everything
In her essay, “Mother Tongue” Amy Tan contemplates how her background shaped her life, her education, and brought her shame, but ultimately, she learns to embrace her background. Tan describes the way that she was stuck between two worlds. When she is with her mother, she speaks in simple English, but while she is in the public eye, she shifts to an English that is more formal and acceptable; one that English-speaking people accept. Tan relates her story of her mother talking about a gangster that wanted her family in China to adopt him because her family had more status. She tells us the story using her mother’s language, so we can see how expressive her mother’s broken English is. Even though the language is not what we may be used to, her story is something we can follow. It is vivid with detail and images. For Tan, her mother’s language is the language of her childhood, and it is clear, and full of imagery. She has no difficulties understanding exactly what her mother is saying. She knows that this simple English is the same language that helped her understand the world, helped her formulate her views, and helped her learn to express herself.
In the beginning of Amy Tan’s narrative, “Mother Tongue” she states, “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 complex idea, or a simple truth” (Tan 299). In these few sentences you understand the passion she has for the English language and what it can do. Tan explains to her audience that she was introduced to the English language in many ways. She gives numerous examples of different language from the different influences in her life. Her use of language in this essay helps to prove her point that you shouldn’t base your judgment of someone’s intelligence on their use of an unfamiliar language. Tan’s rarely uses concise language, so much so that my word editor recommended the use of concise language on multiple quotes. She uses her writing as a strategy to effectively prove her point.
Tan’s intended audience could be anyone that had to learn a new language to fit in where they live. She shows the readers that there is more than one kind of correct English. She often refers to the “Englishes” that she uses. Tan points out the narrow-minded views that many people have of people that come from different backgrounds or cultures. The use of her mother’s experience shows the reader that people would judge way to quickly after hearing her mother talk. People would often assume that her mother was uneducated, even though she “reads the Forbes report, listens to Wall Street Week, converses daily with her stock broker and reads all of Shirley MacLaine books with ease- she does all kinds of things I can’t begin to understand” (Tan 300). Tan is trying to motivate people to accept the things that make them different. She is showing the audience that people will often have misconceptions about people that come from different countries, and people that aren’t easy to understand.
Amy Tan can effectively persuade her readers by her use of ethos and having a strongly known character. Tan uses easy to read language throughout her essay. Even without elegant words, the readers can still understand the complexity of the argument she is making. In the last paragraph Tan is able to emphasize the way that she is more concerned with her audience and appealing to them. She states, “Apart from what any critic had to say about my writing, I knew I had succeeded where it counted when my mother finished reading my book and gave me her verdict: ‘So easy to read’ ” (Tan 302). She is not seeking the approval of critics and chooses not to write like a professor even though others might believe she should. She writes purely for her audience and wants them to be able to understand her writing to the fullest.
Tan makes her writing so easy to read because she knows that most people who natively speak Chinese have a hard time being understood by English speaking people. She has goodwill for her audience because she has felt the pain of being treated poorly due to language barriers. Tan vividly describes a time when her mother was treated unfairly simply because the other person didn’t understand what she was trying to say. She recalls a time when a hospital would not look for a lost CAT scan for her mother until she came to translate. Since her mother was unable to speak perfect English, the person in charge of the results did not concentrate on what she was saying. It wasn’t until Tan came and explained what her mother was talking about that the doctor would take the situation seriously. The doctor immediately responded to the request and apologized for the mistake. It makes it clear that people who did not have perfect English can sometimes get misunderstood and disregarded. Tan explains how some people are treated simply because they are thought to be inferior. Not speaking perfect English according to how Tan’s mother was treated prevented her from accessing or getting the right services. The author’s way of writing is unique and complex on how she develops her points. She shows us the problem then tells us why it is a problem.
The carefully chosen writing style of “Mother Tongue” makes the essay feel like a conversation that you are having. Tan engages the audience directly when she says, “You should know that my mother’s expressive command of the English language belies how much she really understands” (Tan 299). By directly addressing the audience she is able to show that she wasn’t writing this essay just to share her ideas, she really wants the reader to understand what is happening, and why it is such a difficult situation. Tan uses many storytelling techniques to make all the experiences feel more personal. By making the readers struggle to understand her mother, Tan makes the reader feel the frustration of the thick language barrier. We are compelled to experience all of the confusion as if we are having a real conversation. The reader is made to feel empathetic towards the situation. Tan knows what her mother means, and she feels bad that others don’t get to experience her thoughts or ideas. Tan’s writing style gives her readers a glimpse of what it must feel like to be stuck between the two worlds. As a reader you are made to feel the road block that is put in the way of her mother. It creates a feeling of defeat when she knows that her mother is capable of expressing her own ideas, but due to people’s impatience she has to constantly be a translator. Tan is not alone in her struggle between two worlds; Rosie King also shows her struggles of not fitting in to one stereotype.
Rosie King, an autistic 12-year old girl, tells her listeners about the ways that she sees the world differently, she admits, “in my head, I’ve got thousands of secret worlds all going on all at the same time” (King 0:11). King explains to her listeners the many ways that her autism has shaped her world view. King also discusses the tough question of what it means to be normal. She questions whether normal is a good thing, who wants to get a compliment that’s “wow you’re so normal” (King 04:01). While King shows how stereotypes are hurtful, she also tells how they motivate people to challenge the expectations that others have of them. Even though her autism has presented challenges she views her diagnosis as a unique ability because of the imagination it has provided her. She leaves her audience with a strong message to celebrate their uniqueness.
While listening to her speech, I see King as a young girl who is brave enough to be herself in a world full of people trying to tell her what she should be. Often when someone says they are autistic you become under the impression that they aren’t just like everyone else. People with autism fall under a stereotype that they aren’t able to be normal or do normal things. King talks about how the stereotype that many people believe is very untrue for who she is. She believes that most people think of autism and think, “Rain Man immediately. That’s the common belief, that every single autistic person is Dustin Hoffman, and that’s not true” (King 299). Her honesty about a personal matter makes her very trustworthy. She also talks in a way that makes her feel familiar with the audience. She has a personality to her voice and talks in a way that is all her own. She communicates her message as if she is talking with some friends.
King aims her speech at people that need to understand that different doesn’t mean bad. She is showing people that assuming things about a person is a big mistake. Often times our assumptions about people are wrong. Her speech serves as a call out for people that assume disabled people can’t be smart or creative. She takes such a positive approach in her speech and manages to look at her autism in a positive way. She says, “It’s ability rather than a disability” (King 01:44). By keeping a positive attitude, she shows a lot about her character. King is able to establish a motivational tone, and makes the reader want to see the good in a situation most would consider bad. The speech is effective in its ability to persuade the listener because of King’s ability to effectively inform others of the importance to celebrate what makes us different. She asks tough questions, such as, “If we can’t get inside the person’s minds, no matter if they’re autistic or not, instead of punishing anything that strays from normal, why not celebrate uniqueness and cheer every time someone unleashes their imagination?” (King 00:245). Her questions urge the listeners to ponder their own experiences and lead them to believe that they should make changes.
The use of King’s personal experience gives her a greater ability to convince the reader to stay positive even when faced with a tough situation. She knows that a positive mind is key to accomplishing goals. By not letting others dictate what she can or cannot do she is able to go further than most would expect. She admits, “If I was trying to fit myself into a box, I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t have achieved half the things that I have now” (King 02:15). Her experience and mostly success makes her credible. She teaches others with disabilities to embrace the things that make them different. She also teaches people that don’t have disabilities to not underestimate the abilities of people just because they don’t think the same way as we do. King is effective because of the vivid detail and metaphors that she uses to make her audience really see what is happening in her head, and better understand the ways that she lives her life.
While she is giving her speech, laughter is often heard from her live audience. The reaction from the crowd shows her use of humor, and how she is able to make light of a tough topic. Her humor allows the audience to not feel serious about a topic that can often lead to negative emotions. She makes jokes about real events in her life, sharing that she, “googled ‘autistic people are …’ and it comes up with suggestions as to what you’re going to type. I googled “autistic people are …” and the top result was “demons.” That is the first thing that people think when they think autism. They know” (King 01:36). Her use of humor keeps the audience interested, and it makes the overall message more memorable.
Even though there are many rhetorical strategies are used, the most effective is when she shows her reliability, and proves to the audience that she is just like any other teenager. King shows the ways that people often judge her, and how she is expected to live up to certain stereotypes, telling her listeners that, “People are so afraid of variety that they try to fit everything into a tiny little box with really specific labels.” I know personally that as a teenager we are constantly trying to fit into a certain category. People care so much about what others think of them that they will try to form their whole life around acting a certain way. King allows us to understand that we don’t always have to be what others think we should be. King points out, “People often associate autism with liking math and science and nothing else, but I know so many autistic people who love being creative. But that is a stereotype, and the stereotypes of things are often, if not always, wrong” (King 03:27). It’s important to realize that everyone is guilty of judging someone before they know that person’s whole story.
Although there are many differences in the styles of the two writers, they are both effective in their use of rhetoric. Both authors convince their reader not to judge people due to their differences by using ethos and pathos. In both of the texts, the writer is able to use personal narrative to describe their experience. Credibility is established because both authors show the struggles that they had to go through, and make the reader understand the ways that these struggles shaped their lives. They both have experience in dealing with people judging them, but more importantly they teach others how to deal with these situations by convincing them to embrace their differences. A very important similarity in the two texts is the writer’s intent to stay true to who they are. Both texts are written in a personal tone, there is no concise language, or attempt to achieve perfect grammar. They are both simply showing the ways that they are true to themselves. The use of a personal tone and simple language make the message come easier to the audience. A strong sense of individuality is present in both of the texts, and this makes them both stand out. The audience learns an important lesson from the use of honestly and personal encounters. With these two texts we are taught that personal experience is the best teacher, even if it’s someone else’s.
- “Amy Tan Biography.” Edited by Biography.com Editors, The Biography.com Website, A&E Television Networks, www.biography.com/people/amy-tan-9542574.
- Bryer, Michelle. “Meet Rosie King.” Autism Articulated, www.autismarticulated.com/blog/2016/5/28/meet-rosie-king.
- King, Rosie. “How Autism Freed Me to Be Myself.” Ted, Ted, www.ted.com/talks/rosie_king_how_autism_freed_me_to_be_myself.
- Tan, Amy. “Mother Tongue.” Language Acts: Rhetoric and Writing I: Academic Reading and Analytical Writing, by Ceil Malek et al., Fountainhead Press, 2015, pp. 298–302.