In her short essay “Mother Tongue”, Amy Tan discusses the idea that the English language can become a significant tool to divide people within the society because of their proficiency in the language and because of using “the different Englishes” (Tan 46). From this point, weak language skills can limit a person’s possibilities in life because of the public’s vision of the language as the significant tool to assess the people’s position and role in the society (Tan 49).
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Anne Fadiman also develops the idea of the language’s significance in her The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, and it is important to refer to the experience of Lia Lee’s parents in the emergency rooms and to their communication with Dan Murphy because these experiences caused the development of misunderstandings associated with stating the diagnosis and proposing the treatment for Lia (Fadiman 29).
Although Tan’s concept of the language as the limiting sociolinguistic tool corresponds with the experience of Lia’s parents in hospitals because physicians and nurses cannot communicate with them effectively, this sociolinguistic concept cannot be used to explain the cultural background of misunderstandings in the communication between rational physicians and spiritual Lia’s parents.
Foua and Nao Kao cannot communicate using the English language effectively. As a result, Lia’s parents had to carry to emergency rooms many times while observing Lia’s seizures, but it was almost impossible for them to explain the problem because symptoms stopped, and physicians and nurses could not understand Lia’s parents to state the right diagnosis and to propose the effective treatment.
That is why, the language barrier became the limiting force to separate Lia from receiving the effective assistance. The lack of interpreters in hospitals who could assist in communication between parents and physicians led to failures in diagnosing and treating Lia. Few efforts were made to understand Lia’s parents before practicing “veterinary medicine” (Fadiman 25).
The similar situation is described by Tan when she focuses on discriminating her mother in hospital because she does not speak English perfectly (Tan 49). Thus, the language can limit the possibilities of people to be treated equally because the proficiency in language can divide the society into camps.
However, in many cases depicted by Fadiman, the role of the language as a sociolinguistic limiting tool is not observed clearly, but the focus on the cultural aspect is important.
The problem of misunderstanding between the physician as “essentially rationalist” and Lia’s parents is in the physician and nurses’ inability to understand the cultural peculiarities of the family and to focus on the role of spirituality for them (Fadiman 29). Thus, it is impossible for Foua and Nao Kao to understand the fact that the disease’s symptoms “were caused by an electrochemical storm inside their daughter’s head that had been stirred up by the misfiring of aberrant brain cells” (Fadiman 28).
The spiritual nature of epilepsy is more understandable for Lia’s parents because the belief in spirits is the part of their culture and religion. As a result, the use of medical terms cannot add to understanding between the parents and physicians because the hospital staff does not focus on the cultural background of the patients.
In this case, the English language is not only the limiting and separating tool, but it is also the barrier to discuss the cultural peculiarities. Tan’s concept does not correspond with the cultural background of Fadiman’s message because it is focused on the language’s discriminating role, but it is also necessary to pay attention to its role for overcoming cultural barriers.
Fadiman, Anne. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures. USA: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. Print.
Tan, Amy. “Mother Tongue”. Across Cultures: A Reader for Writers. Ed. Sheena Gillespie and Robert Becker. USA: Longman, 2010. 46-52. Print.