On both of my children’s first birthdays, I mourned. Not because their babyhood had passed, or because they were fast heading toward tenacious toddlerhoods. No, I mourned because according to research I’d read on language acquisition, their ability to hear the phonemes in any language was ending. A window of possibility had closed, and they weren’t even aware of it.
Christine Gilbert had a similar reaction to the thought of her son knowing only one language, but instead of sighing and shrugging ineffectually on his first birthday, she took action. As her book Mother Tongue: My Family’s Globe-Trotting Quest to Dream in Mandarin, Laugh in Arabic, and Sing in Spanish begins, she and her husband Drew launch an ambitious eighteen-month-long, three-country quest to become fluent in Mandarin, Arabic, and Spanish. The book is divided into three sections, each named for the place they settle in to immerse themselves in the language: China, Lebanon, and Mexico. The story is part personal memoir, part travelogue, part literacy narrative. And part of the audacity of the project is that they start it with an almost two-year-old and end it with a four-year-old and a one-year-old. Gilbert and her husband have the courage to step out and travel to places most of us can only dream—and not for a week or two at a time while grandparents keep the kids.
Almost 100 pages into Mother Tongue, we learn the real reason Gilbert has taken her family on the quest. In the first chapter, she gives us her ostensible reasons: the desire to raise their son, Cole, bilingual; and the desire to ward off dementia, which she worries she will inherit. And yet, in chapters nine and ten, we learn of Gilbert’s own childhood trauma. In Beijing, their nanny leaves their son to cry alone while Gilbert and her husband are out one afternoon. When they return and see their exhausted, tear-stained child, Gilbert finds herself so triggered that they pack up and leave the country, four months early. At this point, she confides that her mother, who turned her out of the house at age 12, would tell stories of her crying it out for hours. She was determined to be a different person:
So when Cole cried, I picked him up. I comforted him. I would hold him in my arms until he fell asleep; then afraid to wake him, I would sit for hours with him sleeping on my chest. I wasn’t just mothering my baby; I was trying to heal myself.
Here we have the story of a woman mothering herself, trying to find a language, a culture, values, and space to do so.
Gilbert renders her settings vividly. In the first leg of their journey, they settle into Beijing without a safety net: no expatriate relocation companies or tour guides, and no real knowledge of Mandarin. Her descriptions of the city, with its intense pollution and bleak winter, evoke the loneliness of the experience:
Red and yellow neon signs with Chinese characters crowded the sides of each building, and barren trees lined the street. The city was quiet. Drew and I stood with our nearly two-year-old, plus three suitcases and a backpack, alone . . . just us and a line of red lanterns strung down the street, swaying in the cold night air.
The setting provides an apt metaphor for the herculean task of language learning ahead of her.
Conversely, when the family arrives in Beirut, the landscape seems welcoming, despite a civil war raging only an hour away in Syria. When they settle, the violence has not crossed the international border—yet. The danger fades into the background for several months as the port city charms Gilbert and her family:
The pockmarked buildings and crumbling sidewalks are gnarled into a knot of alleys, stairways, and gardens, with overgrown vines climbing the sides of the occasional abandoned home. . . . Overripe oranges fell off the trees as we sauntered underneath. . . . Beirut seemed like everything that Beijing was not: alive, growing, green, and scented with oranges and flowers.
Gilbert learned from the difficulty of their isolation in China, so her family makes connections with local English speakers. The reader wonders whether the inviting landscape make the Gilberts’ experience in Beirut more rewarding, or whether the quality of their connections make the landscape more inviting.
In each country, Gilbert sets about learning the language. Mandarin and Arabic are considered two of the most difficult languages for a native English-speaker to master. Indeed, the private lessons Gilbert takes in Beijing don’t really help her climb out of the morass of unknowing. Unlike English, Mandarin is a tonal language, with a limited number of phonemes compared to those available in English. Speakers make those phonemes mean different things by using one of four different tones, and until Gilbert finds her way into the language by thinking of it as music, she finds herself caught: "It requires context to understand the meaning, which requires understanding to get the context. I was a snake eating my own tail."
She finds more success studying Arabic. Gilbert signs up for a class at a private school, and the camaraderie with other students and the cultural insights from her teacher help her learn more quickly. However, her path into the language was writing. "Arabic enthralled me. . . . the script was so elegant that writing in it felt like I had mastered a kind of calligraphy." She passes the final test and is set to move onto learning the version of Arabic used for the Koran when an eruption of violence in the city cuts their stay short.
Spanish proves much easier. Her husband picks it up without any formal lessons, and they are both fluent by the time they leave Mexico, a year after they arrive. This mastery feels triumphant for Gilbert as well as the reader, especially as she and a journalist friend take a rollicking road-trip across Mexico in a rickety old van, armed with only her ability to talk and think fast in Spanish to get them where they’re going.
Gilbert seamlessly includes linguistic research, often using it to enlighten us as to why, say, her son stopped speaking for several weeks after moving from Beijing to Beirut, or why her children will probably grow up speaking Spanish without an accent. The narrative choices Gilbert make here relate the perfect information at the perfect time. For example, she discusses the bilingualism of many of the people surrounding her in Lebanon, and how fMRI, our most sophisticated brain imaging technology, now shows us that people who learn a second language early tend to use the same parts of their brains to access both their first and second language. Those who learn a second language as adults tend to use separate pathways and parts of their brains.
Then, she segues into a specific issue in linguistics:
Linguists like Vivian Cook now argue . . . that bilingualism is not some superhuman feat but, instead, an ordinary part of human existence. The human brain is more than capable of handling more than one language and it’s only the exception, the scarcity of multiple languages in the environment during our formative years, that leads to monolingualism.
Discussions like this situate Gilbert’s experiences and observations and then effectively universalize them.
Ultimately, Gilbert learns that true mastery of a second language requires also the ability to read the accompanying culture. While linguists agree that biculturalism is not a prerequisite for being bilingual, or an automatic outcome of it, culture shapes language so thoroughly that effective communication requires some knowledge of local mores and values. Through these experiences, Gilbert learns to value biculturalism as well. Her realizations—and her continued steps to live out those values by moving to Barcelona at the end of the project—put my own pangs at my children’s monolingualism into perspective. Learning new languages is a worthy goal, but it shouldn’t happen in a cultural vacuum. I want my children to become world citizens with intellectual curiosity and respect for others’ experiences; I just have to be intentional and find ways closer to home to do it.