Language, identity and power have an interrelationship that has generated debate and discourses that affect not only an individual, but also the larger community from where he comes. In this essay, we will explore the relationship between language and identity. Using Amy Tan’s ‘Mother Tongue, we will look at the importance language and how it affects the lives of people in their communities.
Reading this story, it comes out clearly that language affects the lives of individuals. It is language that defines who a person is and therefore, plays a role in his or her choices and the lifestyle he or she lives. People use language to view life in different perspectives.
In this story, Amy explores how the language she learned affected her life in different ways. She is a daughter to immigrant parents; her mother is shown as a very intelligent woman. She is a source of communication between her mother and those who don’t understand her. Here, Amy has used this story to emphasize that someone is not less intelligent just because he or she can not speak perfect English like those who are native speakers.
It is rare to get two people who speak the same exact language, even those who think they do so, fail to notice the variations in their language because they are used to it. Amy is of Chinese decent, and therefore, language played a major role in her family as she struggled to fit into the American society with a mother who spoke “limited English” (Tan 78).
This story reflects the lives of many Americans who are natural citizens of the United States. I am sure there are many people out there who have parents with their own way of speaking and comprehension of the English language as did Amy.
This does not in any way reduce the intelligence of such parents, but they are forced to depend on their children for translations during communications. This sometimes makes children to be ashamed by their parents, just as Amy did when she joined others to describe her mother’s English as ‘Broken “or “Fractured” (Tan 78).
Language is very special, not just for Amy and immigrants in foreign lands, but for all of us. Language brings people closer to their families in unique ways. Amy agrees with me when she says that language “can evoke an emotion, a visual image, a complex idea, or a simple truth” (Tan 76).
Imagine a situation why by you wake up one day to the realization that you have no voice and therefore can not communicate with those around you. This is when you will realize how important language is. To lack a voice means that you are not able to express yourself, communicate or participate in what goes on in your world. Language involves combining specific words in a certain order.
This depends on different people where you can find people using the same words but in a different order. What is important is that so long as they are able to communicate, then that order is important to them. Language therefore, helps in empowering a people and helping them establish and define their identity.
There is no doubt that through language, people are bound together as one community. However language can also alienate individuals in a community.
Sometimes people use language to label others as outsiders. People use language to form stereotypes of others. For instance, in this story Amy tells us that she has often been asked why there aren’t many Asian Americans in American literature. We also learn that there are very few Asian Americans who are enrolled in creative writing. The answer to these questions lies in the formation of stereotypes.
Many Asian Americans are known to do well in sciences and mathematics than in English. Their English, as Amy says, is also described as “broken” or “limited”. This means that their teachers use these stereotypes to steer them away from writing. They encourage them to take mathematics and sciences course just as they did to Amy. Stereotyping in essence is wrong (Zeng 10).
Language does more than just articulating a simple truth, the way one commands language also matters a lot. We have just learned that without language, an individual will be voiceless, but having an imperfect language makes others see one as imperfect. However, those who are fluent in the standard language are seen to be superior to others. This is clearly illustrated in “mother tongue” when Amy gives us examples of how her mother was treated in the community. She says:
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 78)
These people treated Amy’s mother in this disrespectful way solely because she spoke English that was simple and with non-native variations which they disparagingly termed as “broken” or “fractured” (Tan 78). This reflects what happens in many communities of the world. When people lack the standard skills of a language they are labeled as outsiders and therefore, live under discrimination from those who enjoy the standard language skills in their communities.
Reading through this story, one gets to understand that acquiring a certain language does not only enable one to be accepted in a community, it also helps in determining one’s individuality. The experience that an individual goes through with language goes a long way in shaping his or her self identity.
This is illustrated in this story clearly when Amy tells us about the different Englishes she applies in her daily communication. We see that when communicating with her family she uses the simple form of English, she calls the one her mother uses as broken English, and however, when interacting with people in her personal life, Amy uses a more complex version of the English language.
Bond explains further that both accommodation and affirmation can occur to the same content, in other words, there can be different effects language happening to the same type of content (Chen & Bond, p.399). She confesses that there were instances in her life when she was embarrassed by the English her mother used.
However, as she continued to grow, she came to understand how important that English was to her. She says in this story that she realized that her mother’s English was perfectly clear, it was actually her mother tongue.
This means that it was this language that helped her make sense of what goes around her. This realization makes her wince whenever she calls her mother’s English as “broken” or “fractured”. She does not think that her mother’s English needs any fixing, to her it is whole and sound and therefore terming it broken or fractured when she uses it to communicate with her mum looks unfair (Tan 77).
Towards the end of this story, Amy tells us that it doesn’t matter what type of English you use, what matters is that you are able to communicate. The different Englishes in her life shaped her into what she later become, a writer, much to her critics disapproval that she couldn’t make a good writer.
It is an encouragement to those who are in the same circumstances as Amy that even if they find it hard to speak perfect English, they should never back down from giving their point of view. We have seen that despite her broken English, Amy’s mother helped her to understand English better.
It is her mother who encouraged her to become a writer. People have different mother tongues that they were taught when young, but as individuals grow they develop different Englishes which they use as circumstances direct.
The language that an individual uses at work is not the same he uses at home or with friends. Language should be seen as a tool for social improvement, through which many people of different backgrounds come together in a cohesive coexistence (Feng 159).
Tan’s “Mother Tongue” story tells us that the main purpose of language is to enable people express themselves and also be in a position to share the expression with others. It doesn’t matter what form of the language one uses, so long as it is used to express oneself and others understand the expression, then no one is justified to discriminate against it no matter how broken or fractured the language .
Tan’s mother managed to express herself with people in her life using her Broken English, it is this same broken English that shaped Tan into what she is today. Had her mother stooped to intimidation probably Tan wouldn’t have grown up to become a writer.
It is a person’s point of view that matters; therefore people should not be intimidated by those who think they know the standard language from giving their points of view.
Chen, Sylvia & Bond, Michael. “Explaining language priming effects: Further evidence for ethnic affirmation among Chinese-English bilinguals.” Journal of language and social psychology 26.1 (2007): 398-406.
Feng, Hui. “Different languages, different cultures, different language ideologies, different linguistic models.” Journal of multicultural discourses 4.2 (2009): 151-164. Print.
Tan Amy (1990). “Mother Tongue.” Three penny Review (1990): 76-80. Print.
Zeng, Li. “Diasporic Self, Cultural Other: Negotiating Ethnicity through Transformation in the Fiction of Tan and Kingston.” Language and Literature XXVIII (2003): 1-15. Print.