Christine Gilbert might not be the most distinguished writer or seasoned academic you’ll ever read, but she is a great storyteller. It is her ability to provide a platform for these stories to be told that gives the necessary weight to an impressive and diverse body of work/personal projects (see http://christinegilbert.com/), including a recently released memoir titled Mother Tongue: My Families Globe-Trotting Quest to Dream in Mandarin, Laugh in Arabic, and Sing in Spanish, a book I chose to include as part of my personal 2018 reading challenge, filing it under the category of: Read 3 travelogues or non-fiction books related to the theme of travel.
The Power of Language
It is clear from the title that Mother Tongue is a book about language, and while she is certainly knowledgeable about the subject it is worth noting that Mother Tongue is not (primarily anyways) a book about the science of language, nor is it a scholarly work on the history of linguistics. She is not looking to redefine the field or offering anything necessarily new for serious students of the subject.
Rather, this is a book about the ways in which the power of language helped to inform an incredible personal journey of self worth and social awareness. In other words, it is intended to be read as a conversation, one in which she invites us as readers to participate with her as she attempts to make sense of what her experience, her quest, taught her about herself and about the world in which she lives.
On the surface this is a conversation about her personal quest to be fluent in 3 languages. Beneath the surface though is a conversation about why she is on this quest in the first place. And as it is with any great storyteller, she finds ways to explore and express this deeper question by weaving the details of her quest into a compelling narrative that ends up holding some surprising thematic force.
A Motivating Hope
Early on in Mother Tongue the author lets us in on an important piece of this motivation- hope. Hope that is fueled by the evidence that learning 3 languages might help combat a genetic predisposition to dementia, and hope that her decision to be bilingual, or trilingual, might help to break the cycle of dementia for her young son as well.
Already as a reader I was being offered a sense in the early pages that the author’s journey was a deeply personal one anchored by a strong emotional undercurrent born from the pain of watching a loved one suffer and die, and the desire that grew out of that to help protect her son from having to go through the same thing.
As the story moves forward, landing her in China and then eventually in Lebanon and Mexico, this same emotional undercurrent begins to uncover some added baggage from Christine’s past as well, baggage that begins to redefine her journey into the world of language, or at least her expectation of what it might be, through the reality of the neglect that coloured her past. Breaking the cycle of dementia becomes synonymous with breaking the cycle of this neglect, turning her own broken definition of family and motherhood into one that is being redeemed through the life she now has the opportunity to give to her own child, and eventually a second child.
And what is so fascinating about watching her navigate these waters is the way her own experience with this neglect has made her intuitively aware of the distance that language can create between cultures. The trials she faced in China of being exposed as the ambiguous and stereotypical “other”, the freedom she finds in Lebanon’s multi-cultured and multi-linguistic environment, and the learnings from these two places that she is able to take with them into Mexico, offer a profound statement of what it means to accept and to belong, both in the context of family and in the context of culture.
To Barcelona and Back Again
The book opens with a romanticized picture of Barcelona, the place in which her and her husband began their journey together, and offers us a promise that we will eventually return to these same streets on the other side of this journey. But first she must tell her story, one of having to leave and one of eventually choosing to return. And it is in the leaving, the stepping out, that she notes 2 central facets to learning a language that become absolutely necessary for her in order to understand the language she is learning-
1. That which we absorb through immersion
2. Information which we learn through study and the classroom.
And in understanding these two facets she begins to see a common thread running through her own experience, first of learning Mandarin, and second of learning Arabic. And this is the idea that learning the culture tends to be more important than learning the language itself. The marriage of language and culture was far more prominent than she imagined it would be when she first set out on this quest, and near the end of her journey she eventually comes to realize that it is more important for her to be bicultural than bilingual, and it is this revelation that ultimately brings them, and us, back to the streets of Barcelona.
Embracing Our Misconceptions
So much of Christine’s journey circles around the idea that we live with misconceptions, both of ourselves and of others, and often these misconceptions arrive as a result of the barriers that language tends to create. Being able to communicate, to see and hear one another, becomes far more important when we experience life without this communication. And the further she goes on her quest to conquer and tear down this barrier, the more misconceptions she finds being uncovered.
It might have began as a misconception surrounding the technicalities of becoming trilingual, such as the fact that it was far less of a step by step process and far more fluid and nuanced than she expected it would be. Or the very base level misconception that to be bilingual is to be smarter and more intellectual. She discovers that being bilingual is more about context and necessity than an increase in brain or intellectual capacity (a point in which engages with some of the serious science as well). Bilingualism doesn’t make us smarter, but it does make us more social. At birth and at a young age the brain that controls multi-languages is the same part of the brain. For those who learn another language at an older age, separate parts of the brain control the different languages. The differences are subtle but also real, with the most glaring one that learning older sets back the capacity of dialect, sounds, linguistics, accents. But what she finds is that we are all equally capable of becoming bilingual.
All of this eventually transforms into some larger misconceptions as well, such as thinking that Mandarin should be easy to learn if she simply puts in the time. There are some very clear reasons (for her) as to why she was able to fall and love with and connect to the Arabic language and not Mandarin, the biggest of which was the access she was given to the culture itself. She was not able to immerse herself in the Chinese culture, and what shocked her was just how far this set her back in being able to appreciate and learn the language.
Or misconceptions about the diversity of language, something we see in her absolutely beautiful and passionate rendering of Arabic as a threefold language of expression- written, street and verbal. Here she helps us as readers to see just how entrenched language is in the culture that gives it shape, and how big of a role it plays in defining different segments of the same society.
Or the shock of knowing the role of cultural expression in forming language as tonal shifts. We don’t hear this in our own language because we are immersed in it. It becomes automatic, allowing us navigate the language of social cues through tones and expressions. When it is not automatic though, these social cues become a massive obstacle to overcome in order to belong and not to be misunderstood.
Or one of my favourite misconceptions that emerges along her journey was the role that food plays not only in culture, but in language. Where bilingualism becomes biculturalism, food inevitably seems to be never far behind.
More Than Just a Language
In all of these misconceptions Christine has weaved together a story that reminds us as readers that language is not simply something to master or the building of a social construct. It is a means by which we either connect or distance ourselves from each other. It is learning to communicate who we are to one another so that we understand one another. In this way language is built on relationship, one that uncovers the motivations, dreams and passions and longings of the other (something that hits close to home during their time in Lebanon), but also helps us to gain a greater grasp on our own self as well. And as Christine so demonstrably shows, it is the beauty of time and space and community that shapes our marriage to language more than anything else. In giving time, in increasing her sense of space and in broadening her sense of community she came to see language as more than simply words, but also as a face and a place that holds personality and meaning, a face and place worth getting to know and investing in, a face and a place that, for as different as they are from their own, reminds them of how much we all have in common.