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Word! The Language Column
Mother – or stepmother – tongue?

Illustration: two speech bubbles above a book
A verb gives a name to an action | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

What does it mean when Germans talk about their “mother tongue”? – Olga Grjasnowa has had very different experiences and gives us hints for rethinking.

By Olga Grjasnowa

German is not a language you can learn quickly or easily. Nor is it a language that a foreigner ever actually learns all the ins and outs of. I learned German at the age of eleven and I’ve been writing novels and essays in German ever since. And yet there are many aspects of the language that still throw me for a loop to this day. They’re often idiomatic expressions like “jemandem den Kopf waschen”. Literally, it means to “wash someone's hair”. Figuratively, however, this turn of phrase means “to give someone a telling-off”, “take someone to task” – which is surprising because washing, say, your own child's hair or having your hair washed by a hairdresser is generally a gentle act. The expression “da geht die Luzie ab” is another such idiomatic oddity. I’d never heard this expression till I saw it in an article in the Berliner Zeitung (BZ) about an “embarrassing” incident on a TV quiz show. A contestant on the show didn’t know it either. The BZ found this lacuna “embarrassing”, and I was simply baffled. How come I’d never heard of this Luzie?

Different levels of proficiency

Is it because I’m not a native speaker? At least that’s what I’m often told. After all, the word “Muttersprache” (“mother tongue”), like the word “Heimat” (“homeland”), has a very clear connotation in German. But how well do native speakers actually speak their mother tongue? The German pop star Dieter Bohlen and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe are – or were – both native speakers, but of very different levels of proficiency, I dare say. And do you remember the beauty queen Verona Pooth? Back in the day when her last name was still Feldbusch, she gained tabloid fame through a brief marriage to Dieter Bohlen and rapidly rose to become an advertising icon and celebrity. At the time, Pooth made plenty of grammatical mistakes in German, for which she was mocked by the whole nation. Though no one noticed when, all of a sudden, she stopped making mistakes.

Just a construct

In a groundbreaking 2010 essay entitled Mother Tongues and Nations: The Invention of the Native Speaker, the linguist Thomas Paul Bonfiglio describes “native speaker” as a racist and exclusionary construct. The concept of Muttersprache didn’t take hold in Germany until the late 18th and early 19th centuries. German scholars like Johann Gottfried Herder, Wilhelm von Humboldt and Friedrich Schleiermacher established the view that people can only think and express themselves “correctly” in one language. Herder infamously declared: “Whoever is raised in the same language, whoever learns to pour his heart out and express his soul in it, belongs to the people of that language.” Which also means that outsiders can never fully learn the language. And this assumption unfortunately still prevails in Germany.

Confidence in your language skills

It’s still widely assumed that you can only be a native speaker of German if your name is Christine, Sebastian, Frank or Sabine – and if you’re white, too. In other words, the people who don’t routinely get asked where they’re from. People with names like Özlem, Tatjana, Mohammed or Sibel are generally presumed to lack native proficiency, even if they were born in Germany and grew up monolingual, speaking only German.
And yet for some time now, my problem hasn’t been German, but Russian. At this point I wouldn't dare call myself a native speaker of Russian anymore, even though I did learn it from my mother, among others, and still speak it fluently. The fact is I often have trouble finding the word I’m looking for, and I have to ask friends to check many an official letter before sending it off.
So maybe I should say German is my “stepmother tongue”, especially now that stepmother bashing is out of fashion.

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.