Amy Tan’s short story, “Mother Tongue” is an admirable tale that discusses the implied meaning of languages and how language is not only a device of communication, but a social tool of measuring an individuals’ worth. Tan’s purpose was to show us how language separates, unites, or isolates those who don’t speak the common way as well as others. The differences between us and others do not make anyone less of a person. She tells us the different circumstances and struggles when her mother had been denied time and care for her broken English.
When Amy was younger, she recalls speaking on the phone, pretending to be her mother so that people would take her mother more seriously. At one point Amy called a stockbroker for her mother and demanded money for an overdue claim only for her mother to go to New York and have him be astonished at the difference of the languages. To everyone else her mother’s broken language was considered useless and wouldn’t get her anywhere.
More recent in the story Tan states: her mother had been diagnosed with a benign brain tumor and when she went to the doctor’s office, the CAT scan was lost and no one seemed concerned with her need to understand her prognosis—having lost a husband and son, both to brain tumors (14). When her daughter came to translate her mother’s broken English everyone was much more amiable with Amy than they had been with her mother: promises were made and apologies were graciously bestowed. In both cases, the perception based on her mother’s “limited” English gave people the idea that Amy’s mother wasn’t very bright, or worse, was not worth their time.
This is the sociological aspect of language meaning how people judge others by the way they speak. In contrast, the author notes that the language her mother speaks is very different than American English, but that it is deceiving in that her mother understands more than one might think: “You should know that my mother’s expressive command of English belies how much she actually understands. She reads the Forbes report, listens to Wall Street Week, converses daily with her stockbroker, reads all of Shirley MacLaine’s books with ease—all kinds of things I can’t begin to understand” (Tan 7).
In comparison to people deeming her useless her daughter knows her to be quite intelligent for understand that which she cannot. Here, Amy shows us that even though you may not have some qualities it does not make you less of a person because you might have qualities others don’t have. In the works of Jane E. Aaron, she states that a stipulative definition is a meaning that addresses a larger purpose or idea, also it broadens the meaning into something most people wouldn’t realize (235). Tan did exactly that when she depicts language in ways that separate us by the way we speak.
Her mother was considered not worth the time of her doctors simply because they could not understand her and the stockbroker who was astonished at her broken English. There is a play on words with the title; “Mother Tongue” literally means one’s first language. Although, here she is making a statement about her mother’s form of English: her mother’s tongue. While it may be difficult for some people to understand it, it is part of who she is, and it does not reflect negatively on her mother because it is different. She is just as special a person, despite what language she uses or how she uses it.