The Art of the Essay: "Mother Tongue" by Amy Tan

In this essay, novelist Amy traces her development as a writer by reflecting on the ways she and her mother use English differently.

Here are links to our lists for The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan.
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Full list of words from this list:

  1. variation
    something a little different from others of the same type
    I cannot give you much more than personal opinions on the English language and its variations in this country or others.
  2. evoke
    call forth, as an emotion, feeling, or response
    I spend a great deal of my time thinking about the power of language--the way it can evoke an emotion, a visual image, a complex idea, or a simple truth.
  3. wrought
    shaped to fit by altering the contours of a pliable mass
    --a speech filled with carefully wrought grammatical phrases, burdened, it suddenly seemed to me, with nominalized forms, past perfect tenses, conditional phrases, all the forms of standard English that I had learned in school and through books, the forms of English I did not use at home with my mother.
  4. intimacy
    a feeling of being close and belonging together
    It has become our language of intimacy, a different sort of English that relates to family talk, the language I grew up with.
  5. transcribe
    write out, as from speech or notes
    So you'll have some idea of what this family talk I heard sounds like, I'll quote what my mother said during a recent conversation which I videotaped and then transcribed.
  6. belie
    represent falsely
    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.
  7. wince
    make a face indicating disgust or dislike
    Like others, I have described it to people as "broken" or "fractured" English. But I wince when I say that.
  8. empirical
    derived from experiment and observation rather than theory
    And I had plenty of empirical evidence to support me: the fact that 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.
  9. guise
    an artful or simulated semblance
    When I was fifteen, she used to have me call people on the phone to pretend I was she. In this guise, I was forced to ask for information or even to complain and yell at people who had been rude to her.
  10. impeccable
    without fault or error
    And sure enough, the following week there we were in front of this astonished stockbroker, and I was sitting there red-faced and quiet, and my mother, the real Mrs. Tan, was shouting at his boss in her impeccable broken English.
  11. regret
    sadness associated with some wrong or disappointment
    And when the doctor finally called her daughter, me. who spoke in perfect English--lo and behold--we had assurances that CAT scan would be found, promises that a conference call on Monday would be held, and apologies for any suffering my mother had gone through for a most regrettable mistake.
  12. insular
    suggestive of the isolated life of an island
    But I do think that the language spoken in the family, especially in immigrant families which are more insular, plays a large role in shaping the language of the child.
  13. moderate
    being within reasonable or average limits
    In grade school I did moderately well, getting perhaps B's, sometimes B-pluses, in English and scoring perhaps in the sixtieth or seventieth percentile on achievement tests.
  14. bland
    lacking stimulating characteristics; uninteresting
    And the correct answer always seemed to be the most bland combinations of thoughts
  15. semantic
    of or relating to meaning or the study of meaning
    The same was true with word analogies, pairs of words in which you were supposed to find some sort of logical-semantic relationship
  16. associative
    resulting from bringing ideas together in the imagination
    "A sunset precedes nightfall" is the same as "a chill precedes a fever." The only way I would have gotten that answer right would have been to imagine an associative situation, for example, my being disobedient and staying out past sunset, catching a chill at night, which turns into a feverish pneumonia as punishment, which indeed did happen to me.
  17. hone
    refine or make more perfect or effective
    I started writing nonfiction as a freelancer the week after I was told by my former boss that writing was my worst skill and I should hone my talents toward account management.
  18. quandary
    state of uncertainty in a choice between unfavorable options
    Here's an example from the first draft of a story that later made its way into The Joy Luck Club, but without this line: "That was my mental quandary in its nascent state." A terrible line, which I can barely pronounce.
  19. nascent
    being born or beginning
    "That was my mental quandary in its nascent state."
  20. essence
    the choicest or most vital part of some idea or experience
    and for that I sought to preserve the essence, but neither an English nor a Chinese structure. I wanted to capture what language ability tests can never reveal: her intent, her passion, her imagery, the rhythms of her speech and the nature of her thoughts.
Created on June 14, 2013 (updated April 9, 2019)

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