Multilingualism in psychotherapy

Professor Jean-Marc DewaeleThis post was contributed by Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele, who presented on this topic at a conference earlier this month to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication. He originally contributed this blog post in 2013, when it won that year’s Equality and Diversity Research Award  from the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy for the paper Costa & Dewaele (2012).

Emotions play a crucial part in our daily lives. We share them, jokingly or seriously, in face-to-face interactions, in texts or emails, and this is a crucial social activity, which is crucial for our interpersonal relationships and our individual well-being.

It is much more difficult to communicate emotions in a foreign language (LX), because of gaps in the linguistic, pragmatic and sociocultural knowledge needed to express the full range of emotions.  LX users (and I’m one myself in English) can feel frustrated at not being able to project an accurate image of self. Interestingly, a majority of multilinguals report feeling different depending on the language they are using (Dewaele & Nakano, 2013). It typically takes a couple of months before LX users can be relatively confident that their communicative intentions in expressing emotions will be correctly decoded and that their capacity to infer the emotions expressed by their interlocutors is sound. The difficulty lies in the fact that as first language (L1) users we can express our own emotions precisely, and recognise other people’s emotions unerringly.  This sense of security is lost when having to communicate emotions in the LX (Dewaele, 2010).

I have explained in an earlier blog that emotion words can have a very different resonance in the different languages of a multilingual: swearwords typically don’t sound as offensive in an LX and expressions of love don’t sound as strong. A study on Turkish L1-English L2 bilinguals showed that emotional phrases presented in an L1 elicited higher skin conductance responses than the translation of these phrases in a L2 (Caldwell-Harris & Ayçiçeği-Dinn, 2009), in other words hearing Turkish taboo words made participants sweat more than the equivalent words in English.  It thus seems that the L1 is the language of the heart, while the LX often fulfills an intellectual function and is relatively emotion-free, creating a feeling of detachment or disembodied cognition (Pavlenko, 2013).  Research has shown that immigrants’ memories that were experienced in the L1 are generally richer in terms of emotional significance when recalled in the L1. When these L1 memories are recalled in an LX, some emotional intensity is lost.

This might not always be a bad thing, especially if the multilingual is talking about traumatic events like torture or rape.  It is crucial that psychotherapists are aware of this phenomenon.  Indeed, there are important psychotherapeutic implications of being multilingual both for the patient and for the therapist. Beverley Costa, director of the charity Mothertongue, was struck by a quote from a Greek-English-French participant in my 2010 book:

I think when I talk about emotional topics I tend to code-switch to English a lot. I remember when I was seeing a psychologist in Greece for a while I kept codeswitching from Greek to English. We never really talked about this…To my mind it may have been some distancing strategy. (p. 204).

Beverley contacted me to carry out a study on differences between monolingual and multilingual therapists.  The paper, which was published in 2012, showed that psychotherapists agreed that learning a language made them better attuned to other languages and to multilinguals. They also believed that through working across languages they had learned to think carefully about how they used language, to check understanding and to simplify their language. Although no therapist had tried out inviting other languages in to the therapy they were interested and saw the potential of trying this.  The judges from the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy who awarded us the Equality and Diversity Research Award (2013) particularly liked our recommendations for research, practice, training and supervision: “Firstly, it would be useful and interesting for further research to be conducted on language switching in therapy – how it is initiated and what it signifies. The second recommendation relates to practice. This research highlights the need for therapists to pay attention to the way in which the inherent self-disclosure is managed by the therapist who speaks multiple languages (…). It is also suggested that therapists consider if, when and how to initiate inviting languages they may not understand into the therapeutic space and the therapeutic implications of such an initiative. Finally, it is suggested that training of psychotherapists needs to include a component on the psychological and therapeutic functions of multi/bilingualism and underlying implications for therapy. Training and supervision for psychotherapists could also include practice for therapists to make formulations in different languages. With increasing numbers of multilingual people now accessing therapeutic services and becoming therapists, it seems timely for the curricula of psychotherapy courses and therapeutic practice for all therapists – mono and multilingual – to be revised in order to take into account the changing profile and language needs of users and providers” (Costa & Dewaele, 2012: 35).

The study and the award will be presented at the BACP Research Conference in Birmingham on 10-11 May 2013.

Other posts by Professor Dewaele:

References

Caldwell-Harris, C.L. & Ayçiçeği-Dinn, A. (2009) Emotion and lying in a non-native language. International Journal of Psychophysiology 71, 193-204.

Costa, B. & Dewaele, J.-M. (2012) Psychotherapy across languages: beliefs, attitudes and practices of monolingual and multilingual therapists with their multilingual patients. Language and Psychoanalysis 1, 18-40.

Dewaele, J.-M. (2010) Emotions in Multiple Languages. Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan. doi:10.1057/9780230289505.

Dewaele, J.-M. & Nakano, S.  (2013) Multilinguals’ perceptions of feeling different when switching languages. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 34 (2), 107-120. DOI: 10.1080/01434632.2012.712133

Pavlenko, A. (2012) Affective processing in bilingual speakers: Disembodied cognition? International Journal of Psychology 47, 405-428.

Share

3 thoughts on “Multilingualism in psychotherapy

  1. I am an Algerian whose native language is Tamazight (Berber) who feel, probaly like many fellow Berbers, frustrated ebcause we cannot genuinely express our emotions in our very mother tongue because of what Skutnab calls semilingualism, i.e. a mastery of twoormore languages which result in the attrition of the L1. This situation is due to set of factors, among which schooling, indeed, that tend to erase thelinguistic and culturalidentity of the users of L1. Theproblem worsens by the fact that we do not feel secure anywhere, namely in no language. Thiswllprobably constitute an interesting domain of research which I am eager to delve in.

  2. Congratulations on the award for this subject as it is a very sensitive one, multilingualism and psychotherapy is about communication. I agree with the writer, Professor Jean-Marc how we interact with each other and communicate is important in normal circumstances but more important as a therapist. Conversation takes a different form when under pressure and one can’t or feel limited in words to convey what’s in mind one becomes frustrated, in therapy a high level of calmness is required and if emotions are clouded by these difficulties then the therapy would be under a threat. In my opinion psychotherapy in this case would be more beneficial if it includes other forms of communication as well as verbal one. Creative thinking is required here to maximise an effective communication in psychotherapy, drawings is one but am sure other ways are also used.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *