Thinking about Muttersprache – Tag der Muttersprache reached out to me to do a piece for the Tag der Muttersprache (Day of Native Language) which falls on February 21. So I was thinking about Muttersprache, and it’s LITERAL meaning… Mother Speech. Although I grew up in California, German was my first language. The language of my mother. And after THIS MANY years of living in California (imagine a lot of fingers and toes being held up), it’s still a language I hear in the back of my brain.

It’s the language of my deep emotions, and the language I sometimes hear in dreams. German screams out when I stub my toe or get cut off in traffic.  It’s also the language of my childhood memories, and was the language of my childhood prayers:

“Lieber Gott, mach mich fromm, dass ich mit ins Himmel komm”


Meine Mama und ich

So, What is Muttersprache to me?

Muttersprache is all those words and phrases my mother said to me while growing up. The stuff every kid hears….

Guten Morgen, gut geschlafen? (good morning did you sleep well?)

Da bist du (there you are)

Was sollen wir Heute machen? (what should we do today?)

Zie dir mal ENDLICH deine Schuhe an! (Will you finally put your shoes on!)

Komm aus den Baum raus!! (Get out of that tree!!))

Bist du schon wieder am zappeln? (Are you fidgeting again?)

Hast du dein Zimmer aufgeraumt? (Did you clean your room?)

Lass die Katze sein! (leave the cat alone!)

Komm, ich wir machen ein Heftpflaster drauf… (come on, we will put a bandage on it)

Sollen wir eine Geschichte lesen?  (Should we read a story?)

Du warst Heute ein sehr braves Mädchen (You were a very good girl today)

Ich liebe dich (I love you)

Gute Nacht, Schlaf mal schön (Good night, sleep well)



Mama and I deep in conversation


Speaking German at home was as natural as breathing. My parents used it with each other and with us daily. Outside the house it became a secret language. The language we could use when we didn’t want anyone to understand our business. And it was also a way to spy on unsuspecting Germans nearby (although the only intel we ever got was “I think I’ll order the hamburger“)

In my teen years, I spoke less German at home. My parents meant well, but like most German-American kids, the corrections made it all so peinlich! (I know I’m not alone here… many of my German friends are quite well versed in Denglish at home). But it was still the language I used for Family in Germany. My Oma, my cousins… for trips to Germany.

Because I learned most of my German “at home”  and Saturday German School, (and because of stubbornness) my fluency never hit full adult levels. I can speak at length about any number of topics… especially after a glass of wine…. and then stop DEAD searching for the words about Politics. (although, to be fair, explaining the California Proposition system is confusing in any language). It’s only now, with this blog, research,  and my travels that my vocabulary is finally catching up. In fact, in a fun new twist, sometimes I know the GERMAN word for something, and can’t for the life of me remember it in English.

German may not be my Native Language, but it is the language of my mother, of my father, of my family. It’s my first language, and the language I associate with home. German is the first language I spoke to my children. It may not be perfect… but it is my Muttersprache.




18 thoughts on “Thinking about Muttersprache – Tag der Muttersprache

  1. Karen, my children grew up the same way you did. I am German-born, they are American-born with an American father. Their first language was German. No problem. Then comes high school. Suddenly there is GRAMMAR! But then they learned to read and write German, and they both can speak, read and write German even now at middle age! Many trips to Germany helped considerably.

    1. Exactly…. being in Germany is the biggest help of all. It works for me… and it worked for my Daughter who spent a semester in Berlin.
      Being around other kids who speak it, and listen without judgement is great too

  2. Nice story! Reminds me of growing up with my German parents. They spoke German the majority of the time and I responded in English. I did go to German school every Saturday for a few years where I learned to read and write in German. I still do okay. I can understand the language better than I speak it, but I can always get my point across if ever in a situation that requires it.

  3. I was “made in Germany,” but born in Boston, Massachusetts. For the first five years of my life, all I heard was German being spoken, unless my older brother, Klaus, or older sister, Maria Luisa, spoke English at home. My Mom and Oma spoke Kölsch, while my Father spoke Hessian German. Everybody spoke Hoch Deutsch, so I had a lot of learning to do. I miss listening to my mother’s dialect, but my husband is also from Hessian, so I get to hear it every time we return to Germany. I had a really hard time in first grade because a lot of English was SO confusing. For example, in 1st grade we had phonics worksheets, and we had to circle the correct sound of the picture. A picture of a hat was shown, so I circulled the “U” for Hüt, but the correct answer was “A” for hat. For YEARS after that, whenever we drove by a “Pizza Hut”, I always called it, “Pizza Hüt.” Anybody else experience this?

    1. Letters always got mixed up in my head at school in the early days. And learning handwriting was a mess…

  4. I loved reading your Story.I’m german and came to Chicago 1983.
    My Son PASCAL speaks pretty good Deutsch.

  5. You said it so well. I feel the same way about my Muttersprache. I’m grateful that my parents promoted this too. They supplied us with books and records. Music has always played an important role in my life and kept my language fluent. I married a German husband and I am so proud that my three children speak German fluently with us.
    I enjoy the German Girl posts. Thank you and happy Mothers Day to you.

  6. Karen, I assume you have dual citizenship? My parents were both German and I was born in Berkeley, CA before they were naturalized. I am now 65 years old and only found out recently that I am AND HAVE ALWAYS BEEN a German citizen, since I was born when my father (and mother, but apparently the father is the important one! 😖) we’re still German citizens. I am now going through the process of affirming my citizenship and, since my kids and grandkids were born to a German citizen, affirming theirs as well. It is a long and arduous process, but so worth it. (My grandfather was a German Jew who couldn’t leave Germany once he knew he should; I want my kids and grandkids to have options!)

    1. Oh! That is a frustrating experience! To answer your question, no. My parents kept their German citizenship until I was in my 30s… but I had American citizenship by birth. Dual wasn’t an option at the time. I had to choose at age 18 whether to stay with American, or choose German. My parents thought it best I stay with the American Passport.

  7. Same experience for me. We said the same bedtime prayer.

  8. My parents spoke German with me growing up in the US, so I didn’t know any English when I started kindergarten. My parents wanted me to know their dialects so I could visit my German aunts and uncles. Other cousins were afraid to speak German after the FBI ransacked their houses in the 40s. Sad. Last time I visited my father’s hometown, the greatest compliment I got was being questioned about when I emigrated to the USA and I was born in the USA!

    1. Your accent must have been perfect! I love that feeling.

  9. My experience is a little different. Mom was German, Dad a US Air Force NCO. I learned German when I was 5. Mom, me and my younger brothers were able to go to Germany to see our relatives for the summer. Dad said I got off the plane speaking German. But, Mom would not speak German with us. She was a naturalized American and would only speak English. That changed when Dad was assigned to Europe for 5 yrs. I picked it up rather quickly. Having cousins so close to our ages helped tremendously. Conversational German, nothing technical. Occasional visits from relatives helped us through the years.

    Karen, I want to ask about translation of written German. Could you translate a postcard my Oma wrote? I found it after my mother passed away. I can read some of it, but, not all.

    And, how do I find the recipes I have seen on Facebook?
    Thank you, Linda Duncan

  10. Hi, I am German from Berlin. I speak German to my Mother only all my German friends have died. I speak German to relatives in Germany ( just a few left) with my brothers I speak only English. I live in Canada.

    1. How wonderful that you still hold on to both languages!

  11. I have lived now for 57 Years in the US . My Mother Language is German and I speake it freely and often . I am Proud to be German Herirage .

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