Mother Tongue by Christine Gilbert

Mother Tongue by Christine GilbertMother Tongue: My Family's Globe-Trotting Quest to Dream in Mandarin, Laugh in Arabic, and Sing in Spanish by Christine Gilbert
Published by Avery on May 17, 2016
Pages: 336
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.
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One woman’s quest to learn Mandarin in Beijing, Arabic in Beirut, and Spanish in Mexico, with her young family along for the ride.
Imagine negotiating for a replacement carburetor in rural Mexico with words you’re secretly pulling from a pocket dictionary. Imagine your two-year-old asking for more niunai at dinner—a Mandarin word for milk that even you don’t know yet. Imagine finding out that you’re unexpectedly pregnant while living in war-torn Beirut. With vivid and evocative language, Christine Gilbert takes us along with her into foreign lands, showing us what it’s like to make a life in an unfamiliar world—and in an unfamiliar tongue.
Gilbert was a young mother when she boldly uprooted her family to move around the world, studying Mandarin in China, Arabic in Lebanon, and Spanish in Mexico, with her toddler son and all-American husband along for the ride. Their story takes us from Beijing to Beirut, from Cyprus to Chiang Mai—and also explores recent breakthroughs in bilingual brain mapping and the controversial debates happening in linguistics right now.
Gilbert’s adventures abroad prove just how much language influences culture (and vice versa), and lead her to results she never expected. Mother Tongue is a fascinating and uplifting story about taking big risks for bigger rewards and trying to find meaning and happiness through tireless pursuit—no matter what hurdles may arise. It’s a treat for language enthusiasts and armchair travelers alike.

An expat memoir about language learning? Sign me up!

Mother Tongue chronicles author Christine Gilbert’s quest to create a multicultural life for her family. She seeks out environments with a “commitment to bilingual education,” where she and her family will be “surrounded by like-minded people who [think] that speaking multiple languages [is] a worthy life goal.”

This memoir ends up being a chronicle of failures—I mean that as a compliment. “Failure” is how we learn! It’s necessary, and I appreciate that Gilbert shares all. We can’t avoid failure, but we do learn from it. And that’s exactly what the author conveys.

Gilbert starts out with a somewhat grandiose vision of how her master plan will play out, but she does not romanticize the journaling of those adventures. China offered a huge dose of reality about the difficulties of fitting into another culture. Lebanon and Mexico, each in their own way, offered new perspectives regarding her family’s privilege. All three places taught Gilbert the importance of community. She discovered that having “a bridge, a way to connect” lifts the veil of confusion expats feel in their new surroundings.

Their time in Lebanon was my favorite. My knowledge of Lebanon is basically limited to its civil war, hearing about and seeing it on the news every night as a kid. Gilbert really captures what makes Beirut such a wonderful place. It sounds so inviting, “…alive, growing, green, and scented with oranges and flowers.”

Mother Tongue breaks down the “us vs. them” mentality, offering a look into how living abroad and learning another language changes us, making the world a smaller, more peaceful place.

  • Sign me up too! Sounds great.

  • Amanda

    I have this to read asap too. I was basically begging for it once I heard the description! Now I’m even more excited.

  • alwaysopinionated

    This sounds like a great book! I am currently studying three languages so a memoir about language learning is right up my street! Great review! x