“Broken English” on the Example of the Novel “Mother Tongue” by Amy Tan

November 8, 2020 by Essay Writer

‘Broken English,’ is what’s spoken in many homes throughout America. People that come from a different country and settle in a new one are categorized as immigrants. With that being said, once you settle into a different country then you have to get accustomed to the culture, language, and people overall.

Amy Tan is a Chinese-American novelist that mainly writes about relationships between a mother and daughter. Tan grew up in a home where Chinese is her first language; therefore, her mother’s English wasn’t all so great. People had difficulty trying to understand her mother because she spoke ‘broken English.’ Broken English is defined as poorly spoken English. When Tan would communicate with her mother, she spoke the English language like her and realized that “Englishes,” were spoken differently on behalf of herself and others. She realized that she spoke the English language differently depending on who she was talking to and who was around.

In the essay ‘Mother Tongue,’ Tan examines and observes how she speaks English, for she believes that language is fascinating and thinks back to how her background has shaped who she is. As for any child of an immigrant, it has brought her shame once, but she learns how to embrace her background and not be ashamed of who she is or where she comes from. Tan does a good job of explaining her experiences with her mother’s English and this helps immigrants relate to it and helps them know that it is okay to speak “broken English” because you can still communicate effectively and if you don’t let yourself be held back you can impact people in ways others think you can’t. Tan recognized that as a writer, language is used as a tool in pieces of writings. This started when she was giving a talk about her novel, The Joy Club. Before that, she had given versions of that talk before, but this time it did feel a bit strange. Tan states “Recently, I was made keenly aware of the different Englishes I do use. I was giving a talk to a large group of people the same talk I have already given to a half dozen other groups”. This reveals how switching between Englishes has become second nature. Her English was proper and nothing like the English she spoke to her mother, and she realized that when her mother was in the room. Later on, she realizes that the English that is spoken within her family is ‘broken’ and that it replicated the anomaly of a native speaker/immigrant who learned English as an adult rather than a child. There are several themes expressed in this essay, one of them is shame. Her mother’s English caused her embarrassment when she was younger.

As any child whose parent doesn’t speak English, she had to intervene so the other person could understand her mother more. Tan talked about a story of when she was on the phone and acted like her mother, and she was communicating with her mother’s stockbroker about a missing check. Tan herself writes “When I was fifteen, she used to have me call people on the phone to pretend I was she.”. She had to sound like her mother, and you could feel and see how she struggled as her mom was in the background telling her what to say. The man she was talking to was not fooled, and Tan felt such shame. She knew that this was not going to be the first or last time her mom asks her to do this. Later on that day, they see that man in person, and her mom starts yelling at him in her ‘broken’ English, and he was surprised because she was yelling at him in a heavy accent. She sounded nothing like she did on the phone. This quote emphasizes how difficult learning a new language is, my mother has been in the United States for 19 years, and her English still isn’t perfect. I know precisely how Tan feels when it comes to this topic, and it can be a little aggravating at times, but I learned not to be embarrassed by it anymore.

Tan was left wondering if the way her family spoke English set a limit on her opportunities in life. After being at the hospital with her mom, Tan says “I think my mother’s English almost affected limiting my possibilities in life as well”. Society tells you that “broken English” holds you back, with the tests they make you take and people who of influence can tell you how certain people impact your English poorly. This quote reveals the struggles of having to use different Englishes and how the thought of it putting a boundary on possibilities can be anchoring. Tan also acknowledges how Asian Americans tend to be better at math rather than English and teachers notice that and steer them away from getting better at it and focus on their strengths. When realizing that Asian Americans do better in math than English Tan begins to think “There are other Asian-Americans students whose English spoken in the home might also be described as ‘broken.’ Perhaps they also have teachers who are steering them away from writing and into math and science”(3). Most Asian-Americans shared the same experience Tan did, of having teachers “steering them away” from something they’re bad at and letting them stay that way. This quote reveals that it isn’t just the way she speaks to her family that limits her opportunities in life but also the people that are supposed to be helping her advance. Fortunately, she didn’t let that be the case for long, and she went on to major in English and wrote books. One of which was explicitly intended for her mother to read with ease.Tan uses all three of Aristotle’s rhetorical styles in her essay “Mother Tongue.”

Ethos is used in the first couple of paragraphs to establish her identity as a writer. For example, she says “I am not a scholar of the English literature. I am a writer,” to earn the reader’s respect. Logos is also used by explaining how her mother would have her call and complain to people or ask for information over the phone. Tan mostly uses pathos in her essay to appeal to the readers emotions. An example of her pathos style is when she informs the reader about her mother’s tumor “…the hospital did not apologize when they said that they lost the CT scan they did not seem to have sympathy when she told them she was anxious to know the exact diagnosis…” Tan significantly balances each part of the rhetorical triangle as each element is ultimately led to creating a very effective thought provoking essay. Tan experiences a lot with the English language but most importantly reflects on herself. Tan realizes how different it is for immigrants and the difficulty of communicating between the proper and broken language spoken in that country. She realized that one shouldn’t feel ashamed for having to speak broken English because there is more joy in communicating effectively with someone close than having others approval. Tan strived to better her English but ultimately wanted to publish something her mother could easily understand no matter what others thought of it. She believes there’s beauty in language, and learns to embrace her cultural background. Tan overall believed because her mother’s communication skills were weak that meant that her thoughts were unclear. She learns to not be ashamed because of her “Mother Tongue.”

Work cited:

  1. http://theessayexperiencefall2013.qwriting.qc.cuny.edu/files/2013/09/Mother-Tongue-by-Amy-Tan.pdf
Read more