In Mother Tongue, Christine Gilbert recounts her family’s adventures while immersing themselves in three very different cultures. At first this may sound like one of those myriad “I spent a year doing thus-and-such and lo, I am changed” books, but in fact Gilbert’s memoir is thoughtful, interesting, and inspiring.
While her idea was kicked off with some research indicating being bilingual staves off dementia for an additional five years–her grandfather, who spoke Finnish and English, had recently died of Alzheimer’s and Gilbert was grateful for the last years of his life–over the course of the book you see how Gilbert and her husband are not just approaching their lives as maximizing brains-on-a-stick. Rather, they are carving out a global culture for their family.
Gilbert is not uniformly successful in her attempt to learn two level 5 languages plus Spanish and some Thai in a couple of years. Her son learns some of the languages and then seems to drop them. Geopolitical events and a new baby necessitate changes to plans. But along the way, she and her husband really lean into the family they are becoming. I was touched by how sacrificially her husband loves and cares for Gilbert, how well they work together, and how fiercely Gilbert loves her children. More than the gift of multiple mother tongues, Gilbert winds up giving her children a family culture that is admirable and inspiring.
Along the way, I learned quite a few interesting things about learning languages that will be helpful to me as I dabble and as I consider languages for my children. Reading the book really made me wish I could pick everyone up and move abroad for a while! Having lived all over the US and in Asia and Europe growing up, it bothers me that my kids are parked in one location. But reading Mother Tongue reminded me that even though our jobs are not as mobile as the author’s and her husband’s, we can still work towards building a family culture that is more global and adventurous.
I enjoyed Mother Tongue and would recommend it to anyone interested in languages, family travel, or memoirs in general.
Have you learned a language while living abroad? Do you think it was easier or stuck better than learning it at home?
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