October 23, 2019
by Susan Warsinger
My first language, my mother tongue, was German. As a young girl living in Bad Kreuznach, Germany, I spoke only German with my parents and my friends. I attended first grade in the German public school shortly after the Nazis came into power. My teacher read Der Giftpilz (The Poisonous Mushroom) and the children made fun of me because I was Jewish. By 1938, I heard a considerable amount of Nazi propaganda on the radio and all around me. Therefore, the German language was something that I came to fear. It was uncomfortable for me to hear it even as an adult, far away from Germany, safe from past experiences. My family did not speak German here in the United States because we wanted to become Americans and learn English so that no one would make fun of us. When people spoke to me in German, I always answered in English. My vocabulary and reading level at the present time in that language is not much higher than Ashenproedel (Cinderella) and other fairy tales. Now, in the autumn of my life, I feel that it is about time that I toss away this aversion to my mother tongue, though it is still difficult.
French was my second language. I had to learn it quickly after I was torn away from my parents and smuggled into Paris in 1939. I had to learn it quickly in order to survive in the French elementary school that I attended in the outskirts of Paris. After the Nazis invaded the northern part of France and I moved to the “unoccupied zone,” I became even more skilled in speaking and writing. I thought that I was very fluent in French for a ten-year-old girl. Over the years I have forgotten much of it, and it takes great concentration on my part to recall my knowledge of French.
The language that I love is American English. For me, as an 11-year-old girl coming to the United States, that language meant being reunited with my parents, freedom from the Nazis, and living in a democracy. I loved the sound of it. It has given me the opportunity to express who I am. It is the language in which my husband courted me with beautiful words. It is the language I used to read picture books to my children when they were little. They never had enough of Goodnight Moon, Babar the Elephant, Madeline, One Morning in Maine, and so many others. It is the language with which my first daughter, Lisa, named her first doll “honey,” the same word I used to call my husband. It is the language in which I patiently taught my three daughters to communicate with the world and helped them grow, become good students, and caring human beings. It is the language in which I can express my deepest feelings to those who are important to me. It is the language in which I tell my nine grandchildren that I love them and they in turn tell me about their love for me. It is the language that keeps growing and for which our new generation of adults find contemporary and innovative words. My grandchildren happily teach me these new words that are foreign to me. A few years ago, Brian, my second grandchild, said to me, “Grandma, I am good,” which, I learned, does not mean that his behavior is good or that he is a good person, but that he is happy with the situation that he is in. “I am good” with the English language.
At the present time, I hear the loss of civility in dialogues between opposing views of some of the citizens here in the United States. I hear our political leaders using offensive and unbecoming words. My second daughter, Meryl, tells me that “not only are American leaders using terrible words but unfortunately so are the music industry, movies, and TV. I wish our language would remain as beautiful as it was when we were growing up.” I agree with my daughter and hope that this deterioration changes soon and that we will be kind to each other in our communication.
My third daughter, Terese, reminds me of how my father always said to us that he, “loved us and liked us” and how he called us dalink. These words came deeply from his heart, and we knew how important we were to him. I understand that our language will be changing and that we cannot go back to the way it was but look forward to us being “good” with American English again.
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