All About Family: How to Talk About Your Family in German
Family gatherings are the subject of many books, reality TV shows and films.
Around them, you can be yourself without fear of being judged.
They’re made up of all different sizes, types and personalities.
And most importantly, family is there through thick and thin!
Whether your family is made up of step-siblings, pets (who could forget them?) or adopted family friends, what matters most are the relationships you create.
While it may be hard to distinguish between aunts and uncles and cousins once, twice or three times removed, we want to challenge yourself to think about your family in a different way—in German!
What You Need to Know About German Families
Before we get to the terms for families, let’s take a look at what family looks like nowadays in Germany.
German families are typically smaller than the average American family. You might say this is due to space limitations in a country much smaller than the U.S., or perhaps it’s in part related to social values and more intricate aspects of German culture.
Whatever the factors may be, Germans place a lot of value in the distinctions between public and private. You might not see a lot of Germans posting the types of things most Americans post on Facebook, as their values don’t necessarily reflect such an open dialogue.
Couples are more apt to think about the future when considering parenthood, as evident by the low birth rate in Germany (roughly 1.5 births per woman). Germans have something called Kindergeld, a monthly stipend in the vein of what is known in America as child support, given to parents and/or children until the child(ren) reach a certain age.
How to Talk About Your Family in German
Across most cultures, family plays an important, sometimes sacred role. In the days of tribes, family members helped each other stay alive by lending a hand with the daily rituals of survival. Family shows us where we came from. So in a way, speaking about your family is telling the world more about yourself.
At this point in your German language career, you probably know how to introduce yourself, say how old you are and tell others a little bit about what you like or don’t like.
Learning how to speak about your family—your origins—takes you one step closer to Germany fluency.
You can pick up many family words—as well as common German phrases used in the home—just by listening to German speakers use the language.
Let’s begin with family possessives
Before we begin discussing family in German, let’s talk about possessives. When you talk about your parents, you don’t say “the mom” and “the dad.” You say “my mom” and “my dad.” The word for “my” in German is mein- (and we include this dash at the end of it to show that mein needs an ending that matches the case and gender of the noun you’re referring to).
For example, let’s say you wanted to express “my family” in German. The word for family in German is die Familie, pronounced “dee Fuh-mil-e-uh.” If you want to say “my family,” you would say meine Familie, since Familie is feminine (die) and the -e ending denotes that.
Since the gender of Familie doesn’t change when we’re speaking about it in the nominative, you would say:
meine/deine/seine/ihre Familie (my/your/his/her family).
But let’s say you wanted to tell someone about your heritage. The German word for heritage is das Erbe, so you could say:
mein/dein/sein/ihr Erbe (my/your/his/her heritage)
What about your family tree, or dein Stammbaum? You can also say:
mein/sein/ihr Stammbaum (my/his/her family tree)
For more on how to keep your possessives grammatically correct, check out this post.
Terms for the nuclear family
The nuclear family (not to be confused with the typical family, which is much more varied), is comprised of a father, a mother and their child or children.
Note the article attached to each family member. While we don’t often use these designations in English (who regularly says “the father?”), it’s important to note the gender in German. This will come in handy for all kinds of German grammar rules.
der Vater = father
die Mutter = mother
das Kind = child
das Baby = baby
der Bruder = brother
die Schwester = sister
A lot of people don’t necessarily call their parents “father” and “mother,” so the colloquial terms are der Vati (Dad) and die Mutti (Mom).
Think about how many terms we have for parents in English (the ‘rents, old man/lady, ma/pa, etc. )! Understanding these nuances is key to near-native fluency, as it’s akin to slang or idiomatic language.
You can see how German native speakers talk about family and other important relationships on FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Vocabulary for the extended family
Here’s where we really get into the family tree. The next time you’re at a family gathering, be it the holidays, special event, what have you, show off your knowledge with the following vocabulary.
Let’s begin with your grandparents:
der Groβ vater = grandfather
die Groβ mutter = grandmother
der Urgroβ vater = great-grandfather
die Urgroβ mutter = great-grandmother
The “great” part about great-grandparents is that you only have to add Ur to signify “great.” Although, if you start saying Ururururur” too many times, your relatives might start to wonder.
You’ve probably heard a lot of people call their German grandmothers Oma. If you haven’t, know that German grandchildren often call their grandparents (die) Oma (Grandma) and (der) Opa (Grandpa).
I’ve put the articles in parentheses because in use, most Germans would say, “Oma, darf ich noch einen Keks haben, bitte?” (Literally: Grandma, can I one more cookie have, please?).
However, you would need the article when saying, “Ich fahre zu meinem Opa.” (Literally: “I drive to my grandpa.”)
What about those aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews?
der Onkel = uncle
die Tante = aunt
der Cousin = (male) cousin
die Kusine = (female) cousin
der Neffe = nephew
die Nichte = niece
Paternal and maternal relationships
It’s one thing in German to say “my father,” but another thing altogether, grammatically, to say “my father’s brother.” These expressions reflect a type of possession that isn’t (arguably) as easy as it is in English. Expressing one’s paternal and maternal relations requires the use of genitive case. Here are a few examples:
der Bruder meines Vaters (my father’s brother; this literally translates to “the brother of my father” )
die Groβ mutter meiner Mutter (effectively, my great-grandmother, on my mother’s side; this literally translates to “the grandmother of my mother”)
Genitive case is a bit more complex than that, but it’s important to at least be aware of it when talking about how your family members are related to you. For a more in-depth look at genitive case, check out this great guide .
Another great way to distinguish members of your family is to describe them using relative clauses. In English, we use the term “who” to describe someone in more detail:
My aunt Brigitta, who bought me this hat, is visiting us.
I want to introduce you to my cousin, who works as a pediatrician.
German requires you to reference the noun with a relative pronoun that matches the case and gender of the noun as it’s used in the relative clause:
My aunt Brigitta, who bought me this hat, is visiting us.
This is really a combination of two sentences: “My aunt Brigitta is visiting us,” and “My aunt Brigitta bought me this hat.”
“My aunt Brigitta” is the common element here, which we’re referring to in both sentences.
Therefore, when we translate to German, the relative pronoun will reflect the gender and case of “my aunt Brigitta” (female gender, nominative case, in both circumstances)
Meine Tante Brigitta, die mir diesen Hut gekauft hat, ist zu Besuch.
For the second example, “I want to introduce you to my cousin, who works as a pediatrician,” the common element is “my cousin,” who we’ll say is male in this case.
The two sentences, separate, are: “I want to introduce you to my cousin,” and “My cousin works as a pediatrician.”
Since we’ll be using the masculine form of “my cousin,” we’ll use the masculine relative pronoun, in the accusative form as “to introduce” in German requires using the accusative case.
Ich will dir meinen Cousin, der als Kinderarzt arbeitet, vorstellen.
Practice your German family vocabulary by drawing out a family tree and assigning each family member their proper German title. You might even write down a few practice sentences describing various members of your family.
You might even involve the whole family! Learning a new language is always more fun when others are involved!
And One More Thing...
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