Interrogating Language and Power with Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue”

Teachers can use the following cooperative learning activity to ask students to think critically about language and power, and to reflect on their own beliefs about language.


Materials needed: Chart paper, large classroom space, multi-colored markers that are dark enough to be read from a distance.


  • Write one question at the top of each piece of chart paper. Then, draw a t-chart below the question with “Evidence” on one side and “Analysis” on the other side:
    • How would Amy Tan argue that language can be used to discriminate?
    • What seems to be Tan’s purpose in writing this text? What is she trying to show her readers?
    • What is Tan showing her reader about language and power?
    • Something that intrigued, confused, or surprised me.
  • Post chart paper with questions around the classroom.
  • Post these questions in a list on a whiteboard for students to see when they walk in the classroom.
  • **Alternative: If students are already experienced at making their own strong text-based questions, teachers can ask students to generate questions that will go on the pieces of chart paper.

Note: Teachers with large classes should create duplicates of these questions on pieces of chart paper. There should be no more than 3-4 students per piece of chart paper, so if a teacher has a class with 25 students, he/she will need 2 sets of these questions.


  1. Students complete Mother Tongue anticipation guide.
  2. Lead a brief discussion in which students compare their responses.
  3. Students independently read Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue” with the focus questions (above) displayed. Students should gather evidence, and should write in their annotations how they would respond to the questions.
  4. Establish expectations: Everyone participates equally, stay with your group generate lots of new ideas, and keep voices low.
  5. Number students 1-4 (one number for each piece of chart paper).
  6. Distribute one marker to each group. Each group should get a different color marker.
  7. Assign one group to each piece of chart paper.
  8. Students work with their group to read and respond to the question. They should provide quotes with page numbers and analysis. Only the person holding the marker is writing.
  9. After 3-5 minutes have passed, ask students to give the marker to someone in their group who has not yet written and rotate clockwise to the next question. Emphasize that students need to add new insights — this task will get harder as the lesson progresses. It’s important that students avoid simply repeating what other groups have said. Students can build on analysis by examining word choices, and adding other thinking.
  10. Students work with their group to read and respond to the question, and build on the previous group’s evidence and analysis. Only the person holding the marker is writing.
  11. Repeat until students have visited each piece of chart paper.
  12. Once students are at the last piece of chart paper, ask students to give marker to someone in group who has not yet written. That student is responsible for presenting the chart paper to the class. Optional: Teachers can ask students to share out a good piece of evidence or analysis that another group posted.
  13. Students return to their original question and compose a strong, arguable claim that answers their focus question and that is based on evidence that they collected.
  14. Anticipation Guide: Students complete the rest of their anticipation guides.
  15. Whole-class discussion: Lead a whole class discussion in which students discuss if/how their beliefs changed.

Tip: Offer clear directions and expectations before students begin this activity.

Outcomes: Students should select key scenes in “Mother Tongue” to analyze such as the stockbroker interaction, and Tan’s discussion of various “Englishes” that she uses for various settings. They should notice that language-based discrimination has the potential to harm people both financially and physically. In this story, Tan’s mother isn’t taken seriously by the stock broker, and her concerns are not addressed appropriately in a medical setting. Ironically, Tan as a child is able to command more power than her mother simply because Tan uses Standard American English more successfully. Tan’s mother’s English is dismissed as “broken,” even though she reads texts in English, speaks in English, and is able to successfully navigate her environment. Tan sees beauty in her mother’s language, and doesn’t see it as a deficit.

Teachers should also guide students to begin thinking about strategies that native speakers use to subtly discriminate. Teachers can also engage students in critical conversations fluency (what counts as fluent?), and about Englishes that are valued — and not not valued — in school. Ultimately, students should reflect on their own beliefs about language, terms like “broken English,” and ways of speaking.

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