7: Essay excerpt, Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue,” 1989.
In 1989, upon learning that her fellow panelists at a symposium on the state of English would include scholars who studied the English language, Tan wrote this defense of her own range of "different Englishes." It was later published as an essay in the literary magazine The Threepenny Review, leading her to wonder, she humorously claimed, "whether all my essays should be written at two in the morning in a state of panic." This excerpt from the essay describes Tan's Chinese-born mother's non-native English, how it sometimes seems to others, and how it seems to the author herself.
Suggested activity: Have students read the entire essay, available here, or read this representative excerpt with them. Ask them to discuss their own experiences of accents and speech styles, whether foreign accents, regional and ethnic accents, or class-based accents. Can they think of an example from their own lives, history, or a piece of fiction, in which someone's accent has been a source of pride or pleasure to themselves or others? Can they think of an example when someone's accent or way of speaking led them or others to make stereotypical or damaging assumptions? Ask students to imagine what their world would be like if everyone in it was suddenly struck by the language plague that afflicts the narrator in Behar’s story. What would that look and sound like in their own hometown, as opposed to in Behar's Jerusalem? What would the implications of such a plague be?
For additional and more extensive essays that complement the Tan essay and the Behar story, you can assign Julia Alvarez's “My English” from Something to Declare (2014) or Gloria Anzaldúa's “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” from the anthology This Bridge Called My Back (2015).
Source: Amy Tan, "Mother Tongue" in The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2003).