A writer, blogger, photographer, documentarian and adventurer, Christine Gilbert is also a wife and mother—but she hasn’t let her multiple roles slow her down. If anything, her familial responsibilities compelled her to embark on more adventures, which she has compiled in her memoir Mother Tongue.
When she was pregnant with her first child, Gilbert began researching the benefits of multilingualism and was impressed by her findings. Most remarkably, she learned that those who spoke two or more languages could delay the advent of dementia by as many as five years. Having seen her grandfather suffer and ultimately die of complications from dementia, Gilbert took note. Soon she devised a program that would help her young son quickly learn three languages before he turned four through what she called a brilliant plan: “We’d become fluent in three new languages in just a few years, by devoting ourselves completely to it and immersing ourselves in those cultures and countries.”
Gilbert chose Mandarin, Arabic and Spanish, and planned to live in Beijing, Beirut and Puerto Vallarta for six months each. Each language offered unique challenges. Mandarin is a tonal language and spoken Arabic is wildly different than written Arabic. Spanish, while one of the easiest to learn, is spoken in so many dialects around the world that the hardest part was picking where to study it. However, learning these three languages would hypothetically grant Gilbert and her family the ability to communicate with 40 percent of the world’s population, a faculty too tempting for Gilbert to pass up. Gilbert is a go-getter who leaps right into each language.
With a blogger’s carefree tone, she describes her experiences—both good (her son effortlessly picks up the new vocabulary) and bad (she gives up on Mandarin in favor of her family’s mental health). Balancing her personal insights with stories about family life, she also imparts a great deal of wisdom regarding her research into language acquisition and candidly discusses the challenges of living in each country. Ultimately Gilbert realizes that in order to truly learn a language she needed to fall in love with the culture and found this easiest to achieve in Mexico. Today she and her family live in Barcelona, where they all speak Spanish fluently.