Mother Tongue ~ Sheila Madary


Simply because I move about, leave my geographical location entirely, or change residence does not necessarily mitigate the impact of home, nor does it mean that I simply leave its geology behind. It remains in my daily customs of eating, in the types of foods I prefer, my measure of distances, in my language.

Anthony Steinbock, Home and Beyond

 Stadecken-Elsheim, Germany

I turn the steel knob of the chest-high gate to the kindergarten. Little girls in sand-coated weatherproof pants, rain boots, and colorful neckerchiefs surround me.  They issue their daily report about my five-year-old daughter, Cecilia.  They speak in a garbled German-kid-dialect: I catch the gist, but I miss the details as they fly past my ears.  Svenja, the self-appointed leader of Cecilia’s entourage blurts: “Heute hat die Cecilia Deutsch gesprochen!” (“Cecilia spoke German today!”)

“Was hat sie gesagt?“ (“What did she say?”) My interest is piqued.  Cecilia has a sharp wit; her impersonations of adults are highly accurate; I expect she said something funny.

Svenja, almost six years old, possesses an uncannily straightforward tone.  I see administration in her future.  She replies, “Maya, Svenja, Jule, Hannah and Klara”–the names of Cecilia’s entourage, a group of girls who had quickly befriended her. Something was better than nothing, and they appreciated her effort.  

I see Cecilia lying prostrate on a boulder at the side of the school building.  Her head lolls to the side.  Eyelids shut, arms outspread in a posture of utter defeat, rain boots dangling above the ground.  She appears to have shut off her senses to the impossible buzzing of sounds.  Perhaps she plays possum to prevent an ambush of children who might tickle her with hopes of hearing familiar words escape from her mouth.

I crouch to greet her.  Dense lashes open to reveal her chocolate-almond eyes.  A lock of dark blond hair rests on her round cheek.   Her stout frame and pudgy belly are outward indications of her appetite for life, her joie de vivre.  In this foreign place, no one knows her particulars—her keen senses of taste and smell, her mellow nature, her love of sleep and her quick wit.  Nonetheless, Cecilia had already exerted her magnetic force over children and adults alike. 

After she changes out of her suspendered rain pants and rubber boots, and having passed the checkpoint of clamoring children at the gate, we round the corner and are met with farewell cries from children in the back of the schoolyard:  Tschu?…bis morgen! (Bye! See you tomorrow!). Immune to their calls, Cecilia tugs at a leaf protruding from the fence.  I hear Svenja tell another child, Sie muss nicht Tschu? sagen, nur wenn sie möchtet  (She doesn’t have to say goodbye, only if she wants to). Cecilia and I trudge towards home.  

Most children here attend kindergarten from ages three through six and begin formal schooling thereafter.  By the time the kindergarten children are five or six, they achieve a status among their peers not unlike seniors in high school.  The so-called “Maxis” receive special privileges, keep tabs on teachers and younger students alike, and generally rule the joint.  Cecilia is like an exchange student who has arrived in time for her senior year of kindergarten.  

Before we moved to Germany, Cecilia had expected to enter kindergarten in the U.S.  She welcomed the prospect of joining her older sister’s practices of wearing a uniform, sitting at a desk, spelling and sounding out words and calculating sums. But, my husband’s job offer at a German university was far more promising than finishing one more year on a temporary, non-renewable contract as a visiting professor at Tulane.  Within two months of his offer, we had moved with our three daughters to a village in central Germany.   Our sudden decision landed Cecilia in the organized pandemonium of German kindergarten where she remained mute for nine months. 

Despite her new friends’ efforts, she did not want to learn their language.   She knew that no one could force her to learn German.  But her brain, like the roots of a plant absorbing water, took in every word and worked against her will. 

Neuroscientists and developmental psychologists have many hypotheses about the mysterious subterranean process of how we acquire languages.  One hot topic in neuroscience these days is the discovery of mirror neurons—neurons that fire as though an action is performed even when the subject is just passively observing that action.  These neurons mirror that which they observe.

Cecilia learned to speak another language by quietly observing her peers and her teachers.  Perhaps her neurons were busy mirroring the sounds they picked up.  In a matter of months, in spite of her unwillingness, Cecilia’s daily observations at the kindergarten translated into fluency in a foreign language.   She could not help herself from repeating the sounds her ears picked up and searching for meaning.

At home, German spilled out of Cecilia.  After lunch, refueled with a full belly, she played a tape-recorded conversation that she held in her head all morning.  All of the nonsensical strange-sounding words from the conversations buzzing in her head needed an out, and the words found a safe exit in her pretend play at home. 

She relentlessly practiced German sounds like the guttural ‘r’ or the ‘ch’ sound.  The former sound is one that the chewing gum “r” of American English has great difficulty negotiating.  The latter is one of those German sounds akin to cats dislodging fur balls.  Cecilia spent many afternoons in her room making these sounds as she built with Legos or dressed her dolls.  During this initial period, she uttered reams of nonsense words and phrases that bore some German intonation or accent.   She repeated these sounds, words and phrases as though she were directed by some inner force. 

“Lalikomitikoh” she tells Eva, her three-year-old sister, whose threshold for tolerating nonsense is quite high. 

“That means I’m six years old,” Cecilia explains.  Eva obliges, accepting this as the definitive translation.  Gradually, the sounds become real words and phrases that, in turn, are strung into sentences.   I hear the German equivalent of:  “My first name is Cecilia, my second name is Terese.  So. Now then.  Very good.”  “No!” she scolds her doll.   “I know! Set this down.”

She “reads” Richard Scary’s Best Word Book Ever to Eva: “und, so, rot, blau, kuhl” (and, so, red, blue, cool), even adopting the German pronunciation of Eva: ayfa.  When she cannot fill in the rest of her sentence with anymore German, she plugs in some English words to round off her story.   

She asks me to translate swear words or song verses or little scraps of prattle stuck in her head—“What does auf die mean?”  Puzzled, I wonder where she has heard those words.  Later, at the playground, I hear, “Auf die plätze, fertig los!”  (On your mark, get set, go!): a German phrase-book-essential for any five-year-old.    

A couple of months after she started at the kindergarten, Ceci told me, “I can’t remember the English word. All I remember now is the German word: dick.” (German for fat).  Though her remark was purely innocent, I marveled at her uncanny capacity for making me laugh.  I smiled and replied that forgetting your language is a sign that you’re learning another one really well.  Then, I envisioned her someday innocently blurting out this German word in an American classroom. By this point, she was speaking in full sentences with a pitch perfect accent.  She had even become rather playful with her second language—impersonating her teachers and putting on a fake, bad American accent.  Despite her progress, she only dared to speak German in the privacy of her home–in her own space where she could practice asserting herself in this new language

Rather than contain this language all within the private space of her head (as I was doing while I was learning German), she practiced speaking and singing aloud repeatedly in an imaginary world.  Each of my daughters stuck to a rule that they had instinctively but firmly established.  Neither of their English-speaking parents was supposed to speak German (Eva scolded me: “Don’t ‘peak German!  Cause this a Engwish famwy!)  Two days after our eldest daughter, Adelaide, started second grade, her nervous teacher pleaded with me to speak German at home.  I nodded, not knowing how to explain that my instinct recoiled from this suggestion.  Even if my children permitted me to speak German with them, why should I pass on my bad grammar?  The girls clung to their mother tongue as their home language for vital comfort. Our language was a familiar haven in a strange place. 

When they walked into school or kindergarten, they went from one sphere into another, from the familiar milieu of English to the foreign terrain of German.  Eva explained this dichotomy in these terms: “I ‘peak German when I pwayin.”  German was the language of play, or the language of school, so the children insisted that we speak English with them.  We were not part of their imaginary world.   Their imaginary world was a place where they could push boundaries, but their home world needed to remain stable and familiar.   Cecilia’s not-always-conscious pretending was a way of grappling with this foreign world into which she had been thrown.

A couple of weeks before Christmas, I saw her talking to colored spools of thread.  After she named each color, she issued commands. “You, green, stay there,” She took out the red spool, tossed back her head, flicked her wrist, saying, “Ach, meine Gute!” (Goodness gracious!).  Without fail, each day for months, Cecilia participated in an imaginative rehearsal that laid the groundwork for accommodating a new language.

One morning when she and I arrived at the kindergarten, I watched her sit down on the bench beneath her coat hook.  Languidly, she extended her legs as two children vied for a chance to untie her shoes and place slippers on her feet.  She used her position of deference to her distinct advantage.  One child took her by the hand and escorted her from the foyer to a classroom.  

Cecilia made for an ideal playmate—especially for girls who spend a lot of time acting like miniature versions of their mothers and teachers.  She was their live doll who could be cuddled, tickled and dressed without any backtalk or contrary ideas.  She became accustomed to giving in to other kids’ whims.  Gradually, acquiescence drained her spirit.

As soon as I open my mouth and utter a sentence, whether in English or German, I betray my foreign identity.  If the words don’t come out fast enough, someone finishes my sentence, and if I don’t react quickly enough to a question people think I’ve not understood, they resort either to gestures, or, worse, switch to English.  I rehearse my lines as the dial tone turns into ringing when I call our pediatrician’s office.  When I stand in line for bread at the bakery, I repeat my order in my head so my public request will be properly understood.  Simple daily errands and phone calls are sources of anxiety here.

Cecilia was both cursed and blessed by the fact that the children she played with every day knew no English.  She lacked the crutch that hinders most Americans’ foreign language learning.  Within a few months, Cecilia understood almost everything her friends told her.  She quickly distinguished between English and German, so when her friends tried speaking “English” to her, Cecilia rolled her eyes at their Ginglish.  “Svenia and Julia say, ‘Thaylksjdashkdsjhfkjs’ and think that’s English,” she explained in an exasperated tone. 

The entourage was not easily discouraged. The girls worked out an unspoken plan to coax Cecilia into talking to them.  I don’t suppose these five- and six-year-olds actually discussed the plan, but it was executed in a strangely similar pattern.   Each entourage member asked at certain points—some more frequently than others—for a playdate at our house. I suspect they figured that Cecilia was more likely to talk to them in her own familiar space.   Their hunches were spot on.  In the space of her own room at home, Cecilia let her friends, one by one, hear her speak German.  One day, after Christmas, Svenja, came over after school to play.  After they played for a while in her room, they decided to paint at the kitchen table.  “Oh, Ceci, it would be so nice if you would speak to me at the kindergarten too.”  This process would be negotiated by Cecilia with her friends; I could worry, talk, bribe, but in the end I had to step back and wait.

I asked her, “Why don’t you want to speak?”

“Because I’m scared.  I don’t want the teachers to hear me.  I’m afraid they’ll laugh at me.” 

I replied with my mantra, “The teachers won’t laugh, they will be happy, so will the kids, and besides, you’ll have more fun when you can talk to them,” but I could not convince her.  One night before Christmas, after I finished a goodnight song, I asked her again.  She lifted her head off her pillow and sat up.  “Part of my brain says I can’t do it, but I know I can. My brain says I can’t do it and that makes me think I can’t.” She added, “I miss New Orleans; I’m going to be old when we go back.”  Her chocolate- almond eyes reached their dew point; her lower lip trembled. 

One morning, after we spent Christmas in Hannover with our friends and their families, she described this dream.  “I dreamed that we were in a church in Hannover and Andreas (a minister and friend of our friends) was up at the front of the church.  We were sitting in the front pew. You were all there with me—Daddy, you, Addy and Eva.  Svenja and I were sitting up in front and you were behind us.  I turned around and you were gone and when you weren’t there, I knew that I was going to have to speak German to find you.”   She did not need my psychoanalysis:  “I know why I have all those bad dreams.  It has to do with not wanting to talk.”

I bribed her unsuccessfully.  I insisted that good things would happen when she started talking.  I tried to help, but my talking only seemed to stall her progress. One day, I met with Cecilia’s teacher, Anne, to talk about Cecilia’s progress.  Anne, with blond bobbed hair, a nose ring, and freckles, has a wide smile and sparkly, clever eyes.  She wears baggy pants under simple pinafores.  She possesses authentic German traits: self-confidence, straightforwardness, a quick wit.

When I thought about our conversation later, I thought of the scene in Charlotte’s Web when Fern’s mother turns to the family doctor for some advice.  She’s worried about Fern spending too much time in the barn talking to animals, so she asks Dr. Dorian:

“You don’t think I need to worry about her?”

[The doctor asks] “Does she look well?”

“Oh yes.”

“Appetite good?”

“Oh yes, she’s always hungry.”

“Sleep well at night?”

“Oh yes.”

“Then don’t worry.” 

Anne, wiser than Dr. Dorian, added this piece of advice to our conversation: “Give the problem back to Cecilia. It’s her problem, not yours.”     


It is a chilly Sunday afternoon.  My husband, Michael, is cooking sauerkraut and pork. Cecilia is drawing a picture of Snow White.  Eva is listening to Debussy on my ipod. I am reading Turgenev.  Weekends are so quiet.  Eva breaks the silence, saying loudly, “Wish we go back New Orleans…we just did have so much fun there.”

Cecilia joins in, “I feel homesick all the time. I mix up the houses in my memory ‘cause we’ve moved so much.”  Home was still far away; it was not the place we physically inhabited.  I think of the impossible advice I gave Adelaide before bed one evening after she had had a rough day at school: “Try to be happy where you are, with what you have, right now.  I wish you didn’t say, I can’t wait for five years from now so we can move away from here. I wish you were happy here.”  But, then again, I have said that same phrase to myself at least once a week.

Later on, we sit down for Sunday dinner.  Michael pours pinot noir made from grapes we see on the hillsides that surround our new home.  For the girls he mixes homemade sodas: mineral water with strawberry and vanilla syrup.  Roux-wine-gravy over pork and sauerkraut is his latest Creole-German fusion. 

On Sundays, I remember that we are thousands of miles from our families, adrift in another world.  Here, we stand outside and peer in at a community we partake in but from which we will always be distant.   


Winter and early spring were increasingly difficult as I saw Cecilia caught between her home and alien worlds.  Pressure mounted as she knew that first grade was around the corner.  She dreaded the thought of speaking to her new teacher.  Regularly, I found her at pick-up time, standing by the kindergarten gates, arms crossed and hands curled up in fists over her mouth–a physical display of mental angst.

One of her friends, Maya, grew impatient, wondering why Cecilia was not going to speak to her when she knew very well how to speak.  Maya backed off, and Cecilia mentioned that she had “broken up” with her friend.  She was no longer included on Maya’s birthday party guest list: the ultimate five-year-old censure.  The day after the birthday party, I received word from the entourage.  A mother called the news to me across the street as I approached the kindergarten gates: Cecilia hat Deutsch gesprochen (Cecilia spoke German).  “Es kommt nach und nach,” (“Little by little, it’s coming along,”) Svenja added, nodding with her hands on her hips.  On the way home, Cecilia was quiet.  She smiled when I asked her how she felt.


For Cecilia’s sixth birthday, we drove her with the entourage to a park for a picnic.  Michael and I listened from the front seats to the girls’ chatter in the back of our minivan. One of the girls asks Cecilia where her older sister is; Jule responds before Ceci has a chance.  “She’s with my big sister.”  In German she says “bei meiner grossen Schwester.”  I quietly repeat her answer, marveling at the grammatical feat this five-year -old has accomplished.  (The preposition throws the second adjective into the dative case, but the first adjective requires the genitive case.)

“How can her brain put those adjective endings all in the right case so effortlessly?”  I wonder aloud.

“It’s like advanced mathematical computation.” Michael shrugs as he negotiates the narrow street. 

Later that evening, I jokingly repeat Jule’s perfectly-declined-noun-adjective combination to Michael.  Cecilia breaks in, saying in a tone of mild derision, “Why is it so hard for you to say things?”  Michael and I smile at each other.  For as long as we live in Germany, she and her sisters will have an upper hand, knowing German better than their parents. 


After Sunday dinner, we get out our bicycles and ride them to the end of the street where a path begins.  The late afternoon sun casts a golden hue on the hillside vineyards and the fields along the hem of the path.  Continuing on to the next town, the bicycle path is void of traffic and noise.  I ride next to Cecilia past swaying wheat fields.  She confides, “I wish I could just fly around the whole world.  Then, I could figure out where is a nice place to live.”    A few meters on, she adds, “I miss our old house.” 

I brake slightly as we enter a curve and return, “What do you miss about the old house?”

She peddles faster. “I only had to cross one street to be at my grandparents’ house. Now I have to take a big airplane over an ocean to see them.  Why didn’t they have to move away like we did?”  I try to explain the concept of retirement to her and that her parents still have to work for a long time.  That’s why we had to move—to work here. “Someday you might miss this place,” I add.

Cecilia peddles ahead of me on our way back home, trying to catch her sister. She kicks her leg out into the brush.   Then, she peddles fiercely ahead, right up behind Adelaide’s rear fender.  Then, she takes a hand off her handle bars and lets out a screeching laugh. 

Someday she will miss this place, these fields, this shining afternoon; she will continue to long for a familiar place, impervious to change.