Mother Tongue Summary, Purpose and Themes

Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” is a compelling exploration of language, identity, and familial bonds. 

This nonfiction narrative essay, which debuted at the 1989 State of the Language Symposium and was later published in The Threepenny Review in 1990, delves into Tan’s multifaceted relationship with English, influenced significantly by her mother, a Chinese immigrant.

Full Summary

The essay unfolds in three distinct sections.

Initially, Tan introduces us to the concept of “different Englishes,” a theme central to the narrative. She describes the unique form of English spoken by her mother, referred to as her “mother’s English” or “mother tongue.” This language, distinct yet familiar, bridges the first and second parts of the essay.

In the heart of the essay, Tan reflects on the profound impact her mother’s language had on her life and identity. She recalls how her mother, not fluent in “perfect English,” often depended on Tan to bridge communication gaps. This experience shapes Tan’s understanding of language and its nuances.

The essay culminates in a powerful conclusion where Tan connects the dots between her mother’s English and her own writing style and career choices. She recounts how her mother’s presence at a talk for her book “The Joy Luck Club” triggered a realization about the various forms of English she uses. 

Tan contrasts the English she speaks at home, her “mother tongue,” with the standard English she learned in school and uses in professional settings. Notably, Tan shifts languages seamlessly, a transition unnoticed by others, including her husband.

Tan shares anecdotes from her past, illustrating how her mother’s language shaped her. She resists describing her mother’s English as “broken,” arguing that it implies deficiency. Instead, she views it as a reflection of others’ limited perceptions. 

This perspective is highlighted by the dismissive attitudes of her mother’s stockbroker and doctors, who fail to take her mother seriously, often necessitating Tan’s intervention.

Reflecting on her own journey with English, Tan discusses the challenges she faced in school, influenced by her mother’s unique use of the language. However, this challenge becomes a source of motivation rather than defeat. 

Tan’s determination to “master” English leads her to initially distance herself from her “mother tongue.”

It’s not until she begins writing “The Joy Luck Club” that Tan realizes the inaccessibility of the English she was using. 

Reconnecting with her “mother tongue,” Tan finds her authentic voice—one deeply influenced and cherished, the voice of her mother. In “Mother Tongue,” Tan not only narrates her personal journey with language but also raises profound questions about identity, culture, and the intrinsic power of language.

mother tongue amy tan summary


The purpose of Amy Tan’s essay “Mother Tongue” is multifaceted, encompassing several key themes and objectives:

  1. Exploration of Language and Identity: Tan delves into how language shapes identity. By discussing the different forms of English she uses, she illustrates how language is deeply intertwined with personal and cultural identity. The essay emphasizes that the way we speak and the language we use are integral parts of who we are.

  2. Highlighting Linguistic Diversity and Acceptance: Tan challenges the notion of standard English, advocating for the recognition and acceptance of linguistic diversity. She highlights the richness and complexity of her mother’s version of English, urging readers to reconsider what constitutes “proper” language.

  3. Examination of Mother-Daughter Relationships: The essay is also a reflection on Tan’s relationship with her mother. Through the lens of language, Tan explores the dynamics of their bond, emphasizing how language both connects and separates them.

  4. Commentary on Perception and Misunderstanding: Tan addresses how people are often judged based on their language proficiency. Her mother’s experiences with her stockbroker and doctors showcase the misunderstandings and dismissals non-native speakers frequently face. The essay serves as a critique of these societal attitudes.

  5. Personal Growth and Self-Discovery: “Mother Tongue” is also a story of Tan’s personal journey in understanding her own linguistic heritage and how it has shaped her as a writer and individual. She discusses her initial struggles and eventual acceptance and embrace of her linguistic roots, which significantly influenced her writing style.

  6. Cultural Representation and Advocacy: By sharing her experiences, Tan advocates for cultural representation and the importance of diverse voices in literature. Her journey to include her mother’s language in her writing is a statement about the value of different cultural perspectives in storytelling.


1. The Complexity and Impact of Language

Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” intricately explores the multifaceted nature of language and its profound impact on personal identity and relationships. 

The essay delves into the concept of “different Englishes” that Tan encounters and navigates throughout her life. These variations of English—ranging from the standard forms learned in school to the unique, simplified version spoken by her mother—serve as a backdrop for examining how language shapes our understanding of the world and each other. 

Tan’s narrative highlights the often overlooked nuances of language, demonstrating how the mastery or lack of mastery of a certain type of language can influence perceptions, opportunities, and interpersonal dynamics. 

Her reflections on the dismissive treatment her mother receives due to her non-standard English usage poignantly underscore the societal judgments and barriers language can create.

2. Identity and Cultural Heritage

Central to “Mother Tongue” is the theme of identity, particularly how it is intertwined with cultural heritage and language. 

Tan’s own sense of self is deeply connected to her mother’s “mother tongue,” an embodiment of her Chinese heritage. This connection is not just linguistic but also emotional and cultural. 

Through her narrative, Tan explores the struggles of balancing her American upbringing with her Chinese heritage, a challenge faced by many children of immigrants. 

The essay illustrates how language serves as a bridge and a barrier between her American identity and her Chinese roots. 

Tan’s journey of embracing her mother’s English is, in essence, a journey of embracing her own cultural identity, showcasing the complexity of navigating dual heritages.

3. The Power of Voice and Self-Expression

“Mother Tongue” is also a profound exploration of the power of finding one’s voice and the importance of self-expression. Tan’s journey as a writer is central to this theme. 

Initially, she struggles with standard English, perceiving it as the only legitimate form of expression in academic and professional realms. 

This belief leads her to distance herself from her “mother tongue,” which she initially views as inferior. However, as she evolves as a writer, particularly while working on “The Joy Luck Club,” Tan discovers the richness and authenticity of her mother’s language. 

This revelation allows her to find her true voice—a blend of her mother’s English and the standard English she has mastered. 

Tan’s embracing of her unique linguistic heritage as a tool for storytelling and self-expression underscores the empowering nature of owning and using one’s individual voice, transcending conventional linguistic boundaries.

Final Thoughts

“Amy Tan’s ‘Mother Tongue’ is an insightful reflection on language, culture, and identity. Through her personal narrative, Tan eloquently demonstrates how language is not just a tool for communication but a significant factor in shaping our experiences, perceptions, and relationships. 

Her essay underscores the importance of embracing linguistic diversity and challenges the conventional notion of ‘standard’ language, advocating for a broader understanding and acceptance of different forms of expression. 

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