Language is an important aspect of human beings that helps in shaping the identity of an individual or a certain group of people. People from a particular region or community are able to identify persons from another different community based on the uniqueness of their language dialect or accent. When a person speaks their mother tongue, other people can easily know the specific nationality or cultural background. They are therefore able to identify them as different. This way, language shapes a person’s or community’s identity, especially where people are interacting in a mainstream culture and/or a standard language. It is important to discuss how language shapes people’s identities so that we understand the role of language in defining individual and communities as unique and different from each other. This paper explores how Amy Tan has shown that one’s language plays an important role in shaping a speaker’s identity in a certain community. The essay involves examples that illustrate the role of language in shaping someone’s identity as Amy Tan describes in her essay “Mother Tongue’.
Tan (86, 341) notes that language plays an important role in defining the identity of a person or group of person’s in a region or a particular community. This is based on the dialect of a mainstream language or mother tongue that one speaks. Tan says that people who are native speakers know and speak the standard language (78-86). The native speakers are therefore able to identify non-native speakers based on the way they communicate using the language. For example, native English speakers who speak in the Standard English can easily identify non-native speakers of the language based on their accents or dialects. This is because most people who learn English as a second language may not master all aspects of the language. Tan says that such people will speak in ‘limited English’ (341). They can therefore be identified based on their accent in the language. This affects the way the ‘limited’ English speakers are perceived by the native speakers and other people. I can understand the disdain that Tan had for her mother when she says that “when I was growing up, my mother's ‘limited’ English limited my perception of her” (341).
Based on language, people in a particular country are able to identify certain people as foreigners. For example, native speakers in Britain can easily identify people from Korea and China. The identification is based on the oddness in the speakers’ pronunciation of English words (Making a Difference n.d). For instance, being a learner of English as a second language, my friends at the university can immediately identify me as a foreigner based on my ‘limited’ or ‘broken’ English. My friends are able to identify me without using any other basis apart from my Korean accent when I speak English. Similarly, people are able to identify persons of American origin based on their unique accent. The same is true for native British people who have a heavy accent that distinguishes them from other communities. People in Korea, China or Africa can easily identify native English speakers based on their uniquely different English accent, and conclude that they are foreigners.
Tan says that her mother’s English was ‘broken’ and ‘limited’ (146-147; 341). This is because she spoke with a heavy Chinese accent. Tan initially did not like her mother’s version of English. That is why she wanted to write in the Standard English. When she tried to write in perfect English, she realized that she was leaving her identity that was based on the uniqueness of her English. She realized that her mother’s broken and limited English gave her (the mother) a unique identity. I can understand Tan’s situation when she has difficulties writing because of her mother’s limited English which affected her writing. I also experienced a similar situation because I had difficulties writing in English even though I could speak. Based on the accent, Tan’s mother had an identity. Tan’s writing reflects the effect of her mother’s ‘fractured’ and ‘broken’ English on her compositions. I now understand what she implies when she writes that “I know this for a fact, because when I was growing up, my mother's ‘limited’ English limited my perception of her” (341).
Tan (341) says that “I have heard other terms used, ‘limited English’, for example. But they seem just as bad, as if everything is limited, including people's perceptions of the limited English speaker. I know this for a fact, because when I was growing up, my mother's ‘limited’ English limited my perception of her”. This means that language shapes a speaker’s identity, which other people can use to judge them either positively or negatively.
Tan’s essay also implies that language defines who a person is (341). Because of this, language affects the choices that a person will make, and the lifestyle they will follow. For example, if someone is Korean, his or her choices on food, friends, entertainment and priorities will be affected by their identity, which is in turn based on their language. Living with her mother who spoke broken and limited English affected Tan’s language and writing. It gave Tan an identity, which affected her choices in life, including in her writing career (76-80; Angelica 2013). Trying to escape from who one is involves changing and losing one’s identity. Tan realizes that her mother’s broken English and Chinese accent defines her identity. Even when we learn and use a new language, our identity will still remain. Therefore, we can identity other people as different identities who come from specific regions and/or cultural and national backgrounds (English Education n.d).
Examples of How Language Shapes Identity
During my first days in the university after attending several classes and learning some English, one of my classmates from Australia asked a question that clearly shows that language shapes identity of people. “Both of you come from Korea, right?” I asked him why he had asked that. “Your accent when you speak English betrays you. It is identical. It is Korean, I think. Your English is broken”. He was able to identify us as Korean after listening to us as we spoke English. In the same way, I can easily know that a certain white person comes from America and not the United Kingdom, based on the difference in accents between Britons from the United Kingdom and those coming from America. Moreover, it is easy for me to identify that someone is a native speaker of English. If someone is speaking English as a second language, I can tell, because the accent will be different than that of native English speakers. The English spoken by people as a second or foreign language is either ‘broken’ or ‘limited’ compared to the Standard English spoken by native-speakers. Based on the accent of my friends, I can identify those of the Korean origin like myself. I also learnt that even English has different dialects (South and Western), which distinguish speakers of one dialect from the others.
Similarly, I am able to identify African-Americans from other Americans based on their heavy and unique accent. When I watch television or a film, I can easily identify actors according to their possible nationalities based on their accent as they speak English. One day as I watched news on Aljazeera, my mother remarked that one of the presenters spoke like an Italian. She had lived in Italy and knew how Italians spoke English. She used that information to correctly establish the identity of the news presenter. This was so despite the fact that the news anchor was speaking in fluent English. This shows that people can use language to make conclusions on the identities of other people. This basis can be used to change a person’s perception of the other (Angelica 2013). The distortion can be positive or negative depending on historical, political or social factors. This makes me understand Tan’s point better when she says that “when I was growing up, my mother's ‘limited’ English limited my perception of her” (341).
The significance of language in shaping identity of an individual or community becomes evident when someone moves into a new region where his or her mother tongue is not used (Making a Difference n.d; English Education n.d). In such a scenario, the foreigner has to learn the new language that is dominant in the new location. This explains why students who travel to overseas nations have to learn the language that is mainly used in the new regions they want to study. When I came to America, I had to learn English. Now that I have learnt some English, I can communicate with my friends and teachers. However, because of my accent, it is always easy for them to tell that I am Korean. It is on the same basis that language can be used to identify Germans, Italians, Mexicans, Brazilians, Americans and Jamaicans among other nationals and cultural background from their language dialects and accents.
In her essay, Tan shows that language is a powerful tool for defining who specific individuals are. Through language, people get a unique identity which sets them apart from other people and cultures. The identity determines the choices people will make with regard to lifestyles and priorities in life. Based on accent and dialectical difference, it is possible to say that a certain person come from a particular nation, cultural background or community. Native speakers of English are able to identify non-speakers based on the uniqueness or oddness in their pronunciation of words or violation of standard language rules. The role of language in shaping the identity of people becomes evident especially when one relocates to a new region where their native language is not the dominant tool of communication. All in all, Tan, in her essay, shows that language is an important determinant of people’s identity. Running from such an identity involves leaving one’s true self and adopting a fake identity.
Angelica, Encinas A. Rhetorical Analysis of Mother Tongue. 30 Jan. 2006. Web. 17 April 2013
English Education. Language and Identity. N.p. n.d. Web. 17 April 2013.
Making a Difference. Language and Identity. N.p. n.d. Web. 17 April 2013.
Tan, Amy. Mother Tongue. 2013. Web. 17 April 2013.