Sprachweh: Nostalgia for the mother tongue

We are all familiar with being homesick. But what is it like to be homesick for your language? Hussam Al Zaher tells us what it's like to miss his mother tongue.

Fotograf*in: Hussam Al Zaher

When I arrived in Germany in 2015, I decided that I wanted to become integrated into society and be a committed member. My first step was to found the kohero magazine (back then called Flüchtling Magazin) together with supporters. At the end of 2017, however, I experienced a shock. For the first time, I saw an ugly side of the German society (as I knew it at the time). For the first time since my arrival, I felt unsafe in Hamburg.

Back then, I had little contact with other Syrians or Arabic speakers, which may surprise some people. It is often said that refugees and migrants in Germany “keep to themselves”, as if that automatically was a bad thing. At the time, I was very busy building up my magazine and 99% of the time I worked with Germans and German-speaking colleagues. As it all came together, I suddenly felt a deep sense of foreignness and missed my mother tongue, Arabic, very much.


Language is for describing, for dreaming, for thinking, for sharing, for remembering and much more …

I thought a lot about this feeling because at that time it was new to me. In 2014, I had to flee my home country, Syria. So why did I feel this nostalgia for my mother tongue three years later? I tried to find a word in German that describes my feeling. Because I thought a lot about being homesick (“Heim-weh”), I came up with “Sprach-weh”. I was homesick for my mother tongue.

For me, homesickness means that a person misses his or her homeland so much that it becomes a longing. Language sickness in return means thinking about my mother tongue a lot and missing it so much because there is no place here in Germany for me to exercise and hear it. I need language to express words, but I also need it for many other things: language is for describing, for dreaming, for thinking, for sharing, for remembering and much more…

In my opinion, a sense of belonging cannot work without language, either. Friendships rarely work without language. Falling in love and having a relationship needs a common language. The Jewish German thinker Hannah Arendt, who had to flee Germany in 1933, wrote shortly after her arrival in New York: “We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings.”

I don’t know if people with one mother tongue and one home can imagine what it’s like to go through everyday life multilingual. You can’t tell quick jokes anymore, every word has to be translated carefully in your head first. Two lovers can hear the same song, but only one understands the meaning.

To express my Sprachweh, in 2019 I started translating a few of my favorite Syrian-Arabic words on my Instagram. I posted the words with the attempt to find similar words in German and thus be able to show my German friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and my future family-in-law more of my mother tongue. At the same time, I was able to engage with my mother tongue again.


“The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

Over time, I was able to regain a lot of confidence in German society and felt less like a stranger than I did three years ago. I think I can see the bigger picture today. I realized that German society (and its language) is made up of people who welcome refugees and help them a lot, then and now. And there are also people who are loud and aggressive against refugees (and migration in general). Then, there is also the big majority of people who are somewhere in between. They don’t have the time or the interest to deal with flight and migration.

Furthermore, I myself have been looking for new ways to stay in touch with my mother tongue. I listen to many Arabic-language podcasts, and I have mixed my social media communities more today. I can’t say yet whether this can really quench my Sprachweh. But it shows me that I can manage to live in two linguistic worlds. I would like to end with a quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”

This article was published in German and translated into English by Leslie Post.



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Hussam studierte in Damaskus Politikwissenschaften mit dem Schwerpunkt Internationale Beziehungen. Parallel dazu arbeitete er als schreibender Journalist. Seit 2015 lebt er in Deutschland. Er ist Gründer und Chefredakteur von kohero. „Das Magazin nicht nur mein Traum ist, sondern es macht mich aus. Wir sind eine Brücke zwischen unterschiedlichen Kulturen.“

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