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Gilbert, Christine. Mother Tongue: My Family’s Globe-Trotting Quest to Dream in Mandarin, Laugh in Arabic, and Sing in Spanish: A Memoir. New York: Avery, 2016.
Review by Elizabeth McNeill
What Elizabeth Gilbert is to humorous “armchair self-discovery,” Christine Gilbert is to “armchair language learning.” With the goal of giving her baby the cognitive benefits of multilingualism, Christine Gilbert and her young family embark on an adventure to learn Mandarin, Arabic, and Spanish by immersing themselves in countries where these languages are spoken. Misadventures, misunderstandings, and mistakes mark each page as Christine scribbles her way to comprehending each language’s nuances.
What makes Mother Tongue stand out amongst other travel memoirs is not only Gilbert’s maternal perspective, but her incredible determination to become multilingual in the face of obstacles like Beijing’s pollution and Beirut’s instability. By putting her readings on bilingualism into practice—and putting herself out there almost fearlessly—she gives her armchair language learners the chance to live out their own what-if’s. For those who have ever yearned to move to another country to learn a language, or have simply wondered about the daily trials and joys of immersive language learning, Gilbert’s book memorably and entertainingly describes her family’s journey beyond the mother tongue.