1 Your Language Experience

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As you learned about in the “Welcome” section of this book, there are many different Englishes spoken around the world and even within the United States. A single person may speak multiple different Englishes depending on who they are with and what they are trying to communicate.  In this chapter you will watch a video and read a short story that illustrate some experiences of children of immigrants to the United States with various Englishes. You will then think about how these experiences are similar to or different from your own experiences and write a reflection on your own experience with Englishes and other languages.

Chapter contents:

“3 Ways to Speak English” by Jamila Lyiscott

“My Many Voices” by Wilsee Kollie

“Mother Tongue” by Amy Tan

Reflective Writing: Your Language Experiences

“3 Ways to Speak English” by Jamila Lyiscott

Jamila Lyiscott is the daughter of immigrants from Trinidad, and she grew up in Brooklyn, New York. She gave this speech when she was a doctoral student at Columbia University in New York, studying literature and race. Now she is a professor at University of Massachusetts, Amherst and the author of the book Black Appetite. White Food: Issues of Race, Voice, and Justice Within and Beyond the Classroom.  She made this speech to illustrate how she is articulate in three different types of English: the English of American academia that she uses at college, the Black American English that she speaks with friends in New York, and the Trinidadian English that she speaks at home with her parents. As you watch the video, think about all of the Englishes and other languages you are familiar with in the various contexts of your own life.

“3 Ways to Speak English” by Jamila Lyiscott, YouTube.com


Hint: If you’d like to read the transcript of the video or read a translation into a different language, go to the TED website to view the video along with these resources.

After watching the video, discuss or journal about these questions:

  1. Jamila Lyiscott says, “I speak three tongues. One for each: home, school, and friends.” What kinds of language do you use at home, at school, and with friends? Why do you think your language use is different in these different contexts?
  2. Jamila Lyiscott says, “Sometimes I fight back two tongues, while I use the other one in the classroom. And when I mistakenly mix them up, I feel crazy, like I’m cooking in the bathroom.” What do you think she means by this? Do you ever feel this way?
  3. Jamila Lyiscott says, “I have decided to treat all three of my languages as equals.” Do you treat all of your languages as equals? Why or why not?”

“My Many Voices” by Wilsee Kollie

Wilsee Kollie is a student at Kirkwood Community College, and she won first place in Kirkwood’s 2023 code-meshing contest for her poem “My Many Voices.” In this poem Kollie reflects on the various voices that inhabit her consciousness and contribute to her identity as a young immigrant from Liberia to the United States. Listen to Wilsee read her poem in the video recording below.

“My Many Voices” by Wilsee Kollie

It’s the rhythms and the blues that I feel in my voice,
I rejoice in my tone,
I speak and breathe infinity,
My mind transporting you across the realm of equilibrium,
Across the equator, as I am the narrator of my own story,
Of my own truth,
To be told through the voices of me.

One voice smoothly arousing your canals, as they travel through your drums bea-ting
Slow-ly immersing you into an intimacy,
Another voice speeding its way through the traffic of our days,
As I stumble on the tracks of excitement,
Around the world with people who give me a constant sense of comfort-ability.

I speak the way of the world,
Masking into the person that you may want me to be.
Native of a culture that I speak with my mother,
As we grieve the loss of our country,
But we keep and hold a part of our nation to our hand, as we say,
“Woh you go’in, come here oh”
And I answer in my sweet americanized accent of girl,
“I am going to a place unknown”
E-nun-ci-a-ted ev-er-y syll-a-ble on my own
Cause that’s the way that I’ve learned, that i’ve been shown
in the schools,
The tools to alleviate my voice into what they call correct,
Of what they call proper.

But what you need to know is, my voice is a prosperity
Showing the inbetweens of my identity,
Speaking informally, as I please, with my friends
Speaking culturally, as a treat, with my fam
And Speaking formal, as a need, in advance
“Hello mam” “Yes sir” “Pardon…?”

This is a letter to my many voices,
A pen pal to my many choices.

When we meet,
I hope that you don’t just see the surface,
But realize the many regions of my words,
Coerced into a never ending loop of a modifying record,
The reality of who I am,
My voice is not only known by me, but a creation known by man.

After watching the video, discuss or journal about these questions:

  1. What lines of Wilsee Kollie’s “My Many Voices” did you personally connect with?
  2. Wilsee Kollie says that she writes this poem as “a letter to my many voices.” What are Kollie’s many voices? What voices do you have? Do you feel like you have a different personality or way of expressing yourself, depending on which voice you’re using?
  3. Wilsee Kollie refers to “what they call correct” when she talks about the language she was taught in school. Who is the they she is referring to? How do you think these people determine what is considered “correct” or “proper” language?

“Mother Tongue” by Amy Tan

“Mother Tongue” is an essay by American author Amy Tan, who is the daughter of immigrants from China. Tan’s most famous novel is The Joy Luck Club, a story of the relationships between mothers and daughters in the Chinese American community. In “Mother Tongue,” Tan illustrates how her immigrant mother’s so-called “broken English” affected how her mother was judged and treated by others in the U.S.

Read Amy Tan’s essay, “Mother Tongue” below, and listen to the audio of the essay as you read, if you like. As you read and listen, think about whether your experience with the English language is more similar to Amy Tan’s experience or her mother’s experience.

“Mother Tongue by Amy Tan (full audiobook)'” by Jordan Barclay, YouTube.com

“Mother Tongue” by Amy Tan

I am not a scholar of English or literature. I cannot give you much more than personal opinions on the English language and its variations in this country or others.

I am a writer. And by that definition, I am someone who has always loved language. I am fascinated by language in daily life. 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. Language is the tool of my trade. And I use them all — all the Englishes I grew up with.

Recently, I was made keenly aware of the different Englishes I do use. I was giving a talk to a large group of people, the same talk I had already given to half a dozen other groups. The nature of the talk was about my writing, my life, and my book, The Joy Luck Club. The talk was going along well enough, until I remembered one major difference that made the whole talk sound wrong. My mother was in the room. And it was perhaps the first time she had heard me give a lengthy speech, using the kind of English I have never used with her. I was saying things like, “The intersection of memory upon imagination” and “There is an aspect of my fiction that relates to thus-and-thus’–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.

Just last week, I was walking down the street with my mother, and I again found myself conscious of the English I was using, the English I do use with her. We were talking about the price of new and used furniture, and I heard myself saying this: “Not waste money that way.” My husband was with us as well, and he didn’t notice any switch in my English. And then I realized why. It’s because over the twenty years we’ve been together I’ve often used that same kind of English with him, and sometimes he even uses it with me. It has become our language of intimacy, a different sort of English that relates to family talk, the language I grew up with.

So you’ll have some idea of what this family talk I heard sounds like, I’11 quote what my mother said during a recent conversation which I videotaped and then transcribed. During this conversation, my mother was talking about a political gangster in Shanghai who had the same last name as her family’s, Du, and how the gangster in his early years wanted to be adopted by her family, which was rich by comparison. Later, the gangster became more powerful, far richer than my mother’s family, and one day showed up at my mother’s wedding to pay his respects. Here’s what she said in part: “Du Yusong having business like fruit stand. Like off the street kind. He is Du like Du Zong — but not Tsung-ming Island people. The local people call putong, the river east side, he belong to that side local people. That man want to ask Du Zong father take him in like become own family. Du Zong father wasn’t look down on him, but didn’t take seriously, until that man big like become a mafia. Now important person, very hard to inviting him. Chinese way, came only to show respect, don’t stay for dinner. Respect for making big celebration, he shows up. Mean gives lots of respect. Chinese custom. Chinese social life that way. If too important won’t have to stay too long. He come to my wedding. I didn’t see, I heard it. I gone to boy’s side, they have YMCA dinner. Chinese age I was nineteen.”

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. Yet some of my friends tell me they understand 50 percent of what my mother says. Some say they understand 80 to 90 percent. Some say they understand none of it, as if she were speaking pure Chinese. But to me, my mother’s English is perfectly clear, perfectly natural. It’s my mother tongue. Her language, as I hear it, is vivid, direct, full of observation and imagery. That was the language that helped shape the way I saw things, expressed things, made sense of the world.

Lately, I’ve been giving more thought to the kind of English my mother speaks. Like others, I have described it to people as ‘broken” or “fractured” English. But I wince when I say that. It has always bothered me that I can think of no way to describe it other than “broken,” as if it were damaged and needed to be fixed, as if it lacked a certain wholeness and soundness. I’ve 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. I was ashamed of her English. I believed that her English reflected the quality of what she had to say. That is, because she expressed them imperfectly her thoughts were imperfect. 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.

My mother has long realized the limitations of her English as well. 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. One time it was a call to her stockbroker in New York. She had cashed out her small portfolio and it just so happened we were going to go to New York the next week, our very first trip outside California. I had to get on the phone and say in an adolescent voice that was not very convincing, “This is Mrs. Tan.”

And my mother was standing in the back whispering loudly, “Why he don’t send me check, already two weeks late. So mad he lie to me, losing me money. And then I said in perfect English, “Yes, I’m getting rather concerned. You had agreed to send the check two weeks ago, but it hasn’t arrived.” Then she began to talk more loudly. “What he want, I come to New York tell him front of his boss, you cheating me?” And I was trying to calm her down, make her be quiet, while telling the stockbroker, “I can’t tolerate any more excuses. If I don’t receive the check immediately, I am going to have to speak to your manager when I’m in New York next week.” 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.

We used a similar routine just five days ago, for a situation that was far less humorous. My mother had gone to the hospital for an appointment, to find out about a benign brain tumor a CAT scan had revealed a month ago. She said she had spoken very good English, her best English, no mistakes. Still, she said, the hospital did not apologize when they said they had lost the CAT scan and she had come for nothing. She said they did not seem to have any sympathy when she told them she was anxious to know the exact diagnosis, since her husband and son had both died of brain tumors. She said they would not give her any more information until the next time and she would have to make another appointment for that. So she said she would not leave until the doctor called her daughter. She wouldn’t budge. And when the doctor finally called her daughter, me, who spoke in perfect English — lo and behold — we had assurances the 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.

I think my mother’s English almost had an effect on limiting my possibilities in life as well. Sociologists and linguists probably will tell you that a person’s developing language skills are more influenced by peers. 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. And I believe that it affected my results on achievement tests, I.Q. tests, and the SAT. While my English skills were never judged as poor, compared to math, English could not be considered my strong suit. 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. But those scores were not good enough to override the opinion that my true abilities lay in math and science, because in those areas I achieved A’s and scored in the ninetieth percentile or higher.

This was understandable. Math is precise; there is only one correct answer. Whereas, for me at least, the answers on English tests were always a judgment call, a matter of opinion and personal experience. Those tests were constructed around items like fill-in-the-blank sentence completion, such as, “Even though Tom was ______, Mary thought he was -______.” And the correct answer always seemed to be the most bland combinations of thoughts, for example, “Even though Tom was shy, Mary thought he was charming,” with the grammatical structure “even though” limiting the correct answer to some sort of semantic opposites, so you wouldn’t get answers like, “Even though Tom was foolish, Mary thought he was ridiculous.” Well, according to my mother, there were very few limitations as to what Tom could have been and what Mary might have thought of him. So I never did well on tests like that.

The same was true with word analogies, pairs of words in which you were supposed to find some sort of logical, semantic relationship — for example, “Sunset is to nightfall as ______ is to ______.” And here you would be presented with a list of four possible pairs, one of which showed the same kind of relationship: red is to stoplight, bus is to arrival, chills is to fever, yawn is to boring: Well, I could never think that way. I knew what the tests were asking, but I could not block out of my mind the images already created by the first pair, “sunset is to nightfall”–and I would see a burst of colors against a darkening sky, the moon rising, the lowering of a curtain of stars. And all the other pairs of words –red, bus, stoplight, boring–just threw up a mass of confusing images, making it impossible for me to sort out something as logical as saying: “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 feverish pneumonia as punishment, which indeed did happen to me.

I have been thinking about all this lately, about my mother’s English, about achievement tests. Because lately I’ve been asked, as a writer, why there are not more Asian Americans represented in American literature. Why are there few Asian Americans enrolled in creative writing programs? Why do so many Chinese students go into engineering? Well, these are broad sociological questions I can’t begin to answer. But I have noticed in surveys — in fact, just last week — that Asian students, as a whole, always do significantly better on math achievement tests than in English. And this makes me think that there are other Asian-American students whose English spoken in the home might also be described as “broken” or “limited.” And perhaps they also have teachers who are steering them away from writing and into math and science, which is what happened to me.

Fortunately, I happen to be rebellious in nature and enjoy the challenge of disproving assumptions made about me. I became an English major my first year in college, after being enrolled as pre-med. 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.

But it wasn’t until 1985 that I finally began to write fiction. And at first I wrote using what I thought to be wittily crafted sentences, sentences that would finally prove I had mastery over the English language. 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.

Fortunately, for reasons I won’t get into today, I later decided I should envision a reader for the stories I would write. And the reader I decided upon was my mother, because these were stories about mothers. So with this reader in mind–and in fact she did read my early drafts–I began to write stories using all the Englishes I grew up with: the English I spoke to my mother, which for lack of a better term might be described as “simple”; the English she used with me, which for lack of a better term might be described as “broken”; my translation of her Chinese, which could certainly be described as “watered down”; and what I imagined to be her translation of her Chinese if she could speak in perfect English, her internal language, 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.

Apart from what any critic had to say about my writing, I knew I had succeeded where it counted when my mother finished reading my book and gave me her verdict: “So easy to read.”

Tan, Amy. “Mother Tongue.” The Threepenny Review, vol. 43, Autumn, 1990, pp. 7-8, www.jstor.org/stable/4383908. (included on the basis of fair use)

After listening to and/or reading “Mother Tongue,” discuss or journal about these questions:

  1. Amy Tan says that due to her mother’s “broken English,” “people at department stores, at banks, 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.” Have you or anyone you are close to ever experienced treatment like this because of the language that you speak?
  2. Why did Amy Tan’s teachers steer her away from writing and into math and science? Do you think this was the right decision for her teachers to make?
  3. Why was Amy Tan satisfied when her mother read her book and said it was, “So easy to read”? When you write, who do you usually envision as your reader? Do you think it is important to make your writing easy to read for other adult English learners?

Reflective Writing: Your Language Learning Experiences

Now that you have watched “3 Ways to Speak English” and read “Mother Tongue,” think about your own experience with speaking different languages and learning English or  Englishes. Write a short reflective essay about your experience with language learning.

"Girl writing"

Here are some questions you may consider in your essay, though you do not have to answer all of them, and you can include any other information that you like, too:

  • What languages do you know? How did you learn these languages?
  • What were your experiences with reading and writing as a child? How do those early experiences with language still affect you today?
  • What languages have you spoken at home, at school, and with friends throughout your life?
  • How have others judged you for the languages or variety of English you speak or write?
  • Do you view yourself as an articulate person in any of your languages? How do you view yourself as a speaker and writer in English?
  • Do you consider yourself a good writer in any of your languages? How do you view yourself as a writer in English?
  • Would you use the term “broken English” to describe your English speaking or writing? Why or why not?
  • Why did you decide to learn English? How do you hope knowing English will help you in your life?

Try to write your reflective essay like a story about your language learning. Include details that will interest the reader and help them empathize with your experiences. You should apply what you already know about the rules of academic English writing, but also feel free to get creative with your writing. You can include samples of dialogue from other languages or varieties of English that you speak, like we saw in “3 Ways to Speak English” and “Mother Tongue.” Merging two languages or varieties of language together in a single piece of writing or communicative act is called code-meshing or translanguaging, and it is a valuable skill that multilinguals often use to communicate more effectively. Feel free to practice code-meshing or translanguaging in your essay to help your reader get a better sense of the multiple languages and Englishes that you know.

This essay will not be graded. Rather, it is a way for your teacher to better understand your past and present experiences with learning languages, including English, and to see a sample of your current English writing to get an idea of what you already can do with your writing and what you will need to work on improving in this course.


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Writing World Englishes Copyright © 2022 by Elizabeth Baertlein is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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