Mother Tongue: My Family’s Globe-Trotting Quest to Dream in Mandarin, Laugh in Arabic, and Sing in Spanish by Christine Gilbert

Mother Tongue: My Family’s Globe-Trotting Quest to Dream in Mandarin, Laugh in Arabic, and Sing in Spanish 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 17th 2016
Pages: 336
Format: Hardcover
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.

I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.


When I was 8 years old, my school district had something called Summer Enrichment. It wasn’t just summer school. You didn’t have to go if you didn’t want to. It was fun classes. You could take Art, Newspaper, the kind of PE classes you DID like, like swimming, printing (little did I know I’d wind up in the field), and foreign languages. I was desperate to go, because, crazy little me loved to learn.

I went for years, until I aged out, and I learned lots of fun things I would have never learned without SE. One of those things was French. I took it for several summers and retained enough to excel at French in high school and then college. In fact, my college professor really wanted to pursue a degree in it, but I knew I would never want to leave home and that degree would necessitate it.

Now, I find opportunities to speak French with some French Ghana friends I have made around campus. The French I use the most? The French I learned in Enrichment. I have often regretted not learning a more useful (for me) language, such as Spanish, since my part of NC has a rich Latino population, but French was, and remains, my love. I have often dreamed of learning other languages, but fear I’m too old.

So, when a representative from Avery (a division of Penguin Random House) contacted me about Mother Tongue, I jumped at the chance. What better way to see if I’m too old to learn something as difficult as a new language, than to read the escapades of a woman trying to do just that?

It was eye opening.

Gilbert and her family travel to China, Beirut, and Mexico in an effort to fully immerse in the culture and the language and learn. Just learn. How to speak, how to converse, how to read, how to understand. And they have varying degrees of success and I admire how Gilbert dealt with the situations AND that she owned up to them in her book. Learning a new language at (most) any age is not easy and Gilbert doesn’t sugar coat it. She worked her ass off and it shows. This book is fascinating not only from the learning aspect, but the glimpses of the different cultures Gilbert encounters and how her husband and son deal with those changes as well. At times repetitive, this book is still a fascinating look at what taking a huge risk can earn one who takes the chance.

4 thoughts on “Mother Tongue: My Family’s Globe-Trotting Quest to Dream in Mandarin, Laugh in Arabic, and Sing in Spanish by Christine Gilbert

  1. I took French at the college level and then took some classes to prepare me for our move and I still struggled with the language when we lived there. I found that, just like in English, people don’t speak the formal conversation you’re taught in school. I well remember referring to money as argent and being laughed at. I think I’d really be able to relate to this book.

  2. Oh man, good for this lady! I’m always trying to be better about learning languages — even if not to become fluent and speak them with lots of people, I feel like it’s a good thing for my brain. I set myself a low-ass goal in Duolingo for Spanish this year, and I am happy to report I’ve been keeping up with it faithfully. Pretty soon I’m going to start watching some movies in Spanish. I expect I will be hilariously incapable of keeping up. :p

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