Monday, October 23, 2017

Mother Tongue by Christine Gilbert

I picked this book up because language learning is something that interests me, even if I'm not very good at it. Mother Tongue is Christine's account to achieve 'a level of fluency' of Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish by spending about 6 months in China, Lebanon, and Mexico.

Since Christine only studied Spanish before the experiment, I was quite skeptical about whether this could be done. After 6 months of intensive Japanese, I could get around and go on a holiday, but I definitely would not describe myself as having achieved 'a level of fluency'.

To spoil the book (look away now if spoilers irk you!), the effort to learn Chinese was a failure, Arabic was much more successful and Christine probably had the most success with Spanish.

Interspersed with her account of how she tried to raise trilingual kids is her research on how we learn languages. I was pleased to know that Professor Cook, who is 'one of the foremost respected second-language acquisition academics in the world' recommends immersion + formal instruction in learning a foreign language, which is how I learned Japanese.

There are also plenty of musings on language and culture in the book, as Christine learns and considers the impact of culture on learning a language, whether being bilingual means that you're automatically bicultural, and if living overseas automatically means you have to either live like a native or in an expat bubble or if you can find your own balance.

I found this to be an interesting read. Christine was very honest about her failures and this led me to celebrate her successes with her. While the reason for this experiment was to make her son bilingual, I felt that there was more focus on her language journey. I think that resonated more than me than a story on how to teach your kids a second language would, but if you're a parent looking for ways to raise bilingual kids, you may not find many ideas here.

If you're interested in learning a new language or you're learning one, you may be interested in this book. I really enjoyed reading this and it made me more determined to make sure that I don't forget my Japanese after I move back.

Quotes I liked:

"If you learn another culture, it changes you. I mean, it'll start with trivial things like words for new concepts that you didn't have before. I don't think that you start off wanting to change, you start off wanting to learn, and the learning itself changes you." 
"[Y]ou have to fall in love with the culture to learn it."


  1. I am terrible with languages. I took Spanish in high school and college, but have forgotten most of it,unfortunately. I looked into a Spanish immersion program for my daughter last year when she was beginning kindergarten, but the waiting lists are so long!

    This sounds like a great book! I would be interested in reading it, especially after reading your review. I wound enjoy going on her journey with her, successes and failures.

    I have a lot of respect for those of you who are bi- or multilingual. In today's world, I think it is a great and useful skill to have.

    1. I hope you get a chance to read it!

      Wow, Spanish immersion sounds really cool. I hope Mouse gets the chance to go for one of these programs in the future(:


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