Inspired by Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue”

The following written assignment I have used at least twice. One reason that I like the assignment is because the student begins to think about differences and about the complexity of cultures. Other reasons are that the assignment helps her or him improve their ability to observe, reflect, and analyze, and hopefully not to stereotype those who are different.

As far as in which mode the assignment fits, it’s basically division and classification; but it could be said to also include narration, description, and comparison/contrast.

I don’t remember what the final written essays revealed to me about student writing and thinking, a fact that makes me wish I had more time when I was teaching to write and reflect on my assignments and their results.

After the class has read and discussed Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue,” I end the discussion by having the students discuss the various languages they have heard in their own families.  Most all students will readily respond with English, but invariably there will be a few who will share that they have heard one or more of their relatives speak another language. In North Dakota families, often Russian, German, Ukrainian, or Norwegian can be heard. I don’t remember if someone ever indicated that a Native American language, such as Lakota, Assiniboine, or Crow,  was spoken in their family.

Often, I have to ask about grandparents and great-grandparents, relatives they might not have seen for a long time.

Then I ask about different languages spoken in their community.  If they lived in a rural area, they might struggle with finding differences.  I ask about different ways of speaking.  Usually I tell them about the German words that my mother dotted her speech with.  Any strange slang or colloquialism?

Usually I ask for words of a different language that students know and put those words on the board with a follow-up question as to where they learned the words and their meaning and if there’s a story associated with that event.  I tell them about the time I used a Spanish word incorrectly when I was teaching Lakota students speech.  They knew the meaning of the word I was using and I didn’t, and brave souls informed me of my error.

Usually more than one person has a relative who speaks sign language.  If they attend a Catholic church, Latin is often used during the service.  In some churches in the Midwest, German.

How about differences in languages between siblings–babies, eighth-graders, high schoolers, college students? I ask them if their language has changed since they have attended college?  Who is taking a foreign language course?  Is one of their friends? Is their written language different than their spoken language? Which do they find easier?

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Assignment:

For this assignment, I want you to assume that your readers are your peers who do not know you and your family.  Compute a response to the following in at least 500 words.

Due Date: the next class period

Explain to your reader two or more different languages (variations of English and/or other languages) that were spoken in your home and/or community in which you lived.  Identify the circumstances in which these languages were used–party talk, home, baby talk, conversations with friends, grandparents, etc. In your analysis, consider such features as level of diction, slang, jargon, sentence length, and/or simplicity of expression.

In your introduction use a brief narrative that illustrates a different language and state the thesis clearly. Throughout your essay sprinkle the essays with examples of those different languages and be specific as to who used them in what circumstances.

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Because this assignment appears to be short and sweet, the next class period I have students read their responses in small groups.  In a large-group discussion, I ask them which essays they felt were really good and why, followed by a question or two that asks them to identify characteristics of good writing.

Then I ask them to list at the bottom of their essay three things that they could do to improve their essays and why they think those things should be done.

After I read each essay, I add to the list, return their essays, and ask them to rewrite their essays, imagining that they are going to be published in the local newspaper, and this time to aim for at least a 1000 words.  I do not grade the first essays, but I do circle errors in correctness.

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