How words can misfire in a foreign language. A look at the impact of our research on the role of multilingualism in psychotherapy

In this blog, Jean-Marc Dewaele, Professor in Applied Linguistics and Multilingualism in the Department of Applied Linguistics & Communication, discusses the origins of his research and why multilingualism needs to considered in the practice of psychotherapy.

Two women speaking

Two women speaking

Early experiences in life can shape future research interests, just as a butterfly flapping its wings in one place can ultimately trigger a typhoon across the world.  I remember standing in a little beach restaurant in Crete, aged 10, amid the sound of waves and the smells of thyme in the summer heat. I was with my new Greek friend. We communicated almost entirely in gestures because he did not know Dutch or French and I only knew a few words of Greek.  He had just convinced me to walk to the table where his dad was having an Ouzo, and firmly utter the mysterious word “μαλάκας”.  Little did I realise that I was about to call a colonel in the Greek army a “wanker”. I planted myself in front of the dad, looked him in the eye, said the word, and watched with astonishment as he went pale and then very red, before noticing his son smiling behind a pillar.  Though I have forgotten whether or not I was punished, I remember being amazed that a word that was gibberish to me could have such a powerful impact on somebody else.

This embarrassing episode triggered a research question that came to fruition thirty years later, as I embarked on a series of studies on the language preferences of multilinguals in communicating emotions.  I demonstrated that multilinguals’ first language(s) (L1) typically have more emotional resonance than foreign languages (LX), and that L1s are typically preferred to communicate emotions (Dewaele 2010).  The reason is that L1(s) are more embodied, having been acquired in early childhood, a period of intense affective socialization, when languages develop together with autobiographical memory and emotion regulation systems.  In contrast, LXs are acquired later in life and typically in a classroom, where words lack any rich emotional connotations, making those words feel uncalibrated and “detached”.  Although this perception may disappear after intense secondary affective LX socialisation, many LX users may occasionally struggle with emotion words and emotion-laden words.

The detachment effect of the LX has both positive and negative psychological consequences. LX users may feel inauthentic expressing their emotions in the LX, but its reduced emotional resonance can also allow them to talk about topics that would be too painful to discuss in the L1. Cook (2019) observed this in her interviews with refugees who had had been tortured in their L1.  Although some complained about feeling blunt and clumsy in English LX, they also considered it to be a liberating tool, which enabled them to bear witness to their trauma, and which contributed to the [re]invention and performance of a new self.

The insight that LX users may switch languages unconsciously or strategically in discussing their emotions was a central point of Dewaele (2010). It led Dr Beverley Costa, a psychotherapist who ran a counselling service that offered therapeutic support to Black, Asian and minority communities in the UK, to contact me. There began our joint interdisciplinary mixed-methods research into the problems facing both therapists and patients who are English LX users (Costa & Dewaele, 2012, 2019; Dewaele & Costa, 2013; Rolland et al., 2017, 2020).  It was the first research in the field to collect both quantitative and qualitative data from large numbers of multilingual patients and therapists in the UK, and thus marked a departure from the traditional approach in the field which was based on case-studies.  Statistical analyses and thematic analyses of interview data revealed that patients who are LX users in English sometimes struggled with expressing their emotions, and felt alienated when therapists ignored their multilingualism and multiculturalism, which are a central part of their identity. Many therapists were reluctant to allow other languages but English in the session for fear of losing control.  These fears were very much rooted in the monolingual ideology that dominates mental healthcare in the UK. There is very little training for therapists and counsellors to equip them to treat multilingual and multicultural patients.

In order to raise awareness about multilingualism, we have jointly presented our research to charities and service providers.  Costa trained over 3,640 British therapists between 2013 and 2020.  This training had a significant effect on the therapists’ beliefs, attitudes and practices regarding their multilingual patients. The sessions increased practitioners’ confidence about working with patients’ multilingualism, and how it could be a therapeutic asset in treatment (Bager-Charleson et al., 2017).  The techniques developed from our research are helping LX-using patients dealing with anxiety and depression more effectively (Costa, 2020).  The key points of our research have been incorporated into the core competencies for supervisors for the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, and in training programmes for clinical supervisors for the NHS at Universities of Reading and Southampton.

References
Bager-Charleson, S., Dewaele, J.-M., Costa, B., & Kasap, Z. (2017) A multilingual outlook: Can awareness-raising about multilingualism affect therapists’ practice? A mixed-method evaluation. Language and Psychoanalysis 6, 56-75.
Cook, S. (2019) Exploring the role of multilingualism in the therapeutic journey of survivors of torture and human trafficking. Unpublished PhD dissertation. Birkbeck, University of London.
Costa, B. (2020) Other Tongues: Psychological therapies in a multilingual world. London: PCCS Books.
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, 19-40. Winner of the Equality and Diversity Research Award (2013) from the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.
Costa, B., & Dewaele, J.-M. (2019) The talking cure – building the core skills and the confidence of counsellors and psychotherapists to work effectively with multilingual patients through training and supervision. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research 19, 231–240.
Dewaele, J.-M. (2010) Emotions in multiple languages. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Dewaele, J.-M. & Costa, B. (2013) Multilingual clients’ experience of psychotherapy. Language and Psychoanalysis 2, 31-50.
Rolland, L., Dewaele, J.-M., & Costa, B. (2017) Multilingualism and psychotherapy: Exploring multilingual clients’ experiences of language practices in psychotherapy. International Journal of Multilingualism 14, 69-85.
Rolland, L., Costa, B., & Dewaele, J.-M. (2020) Negotiating the language(s) for psychotherapy talk: A mixed methods study from the perspective of multilingual clients. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/capr.12369

Share
. 1 comment . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , , , , ,

The United Nations: Is Language Just Part of the Plumbing?

This post was contributed by Dr Lisa J. McEntee-Atalianis, of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

Dr Lisa McEntee-AtalianisSince the first General Assembly Resolution 2 (I) in 1946, the United Nations (UN) has championed multilingualism and cultural diversity through the promotion and support of six official languages and a varied number of working languages for its work within its Headquarters in New York, its various agencies and in its outreach and fieldwork.

In its most recent resolution the UN reiterates its commitment to multilingualism, noting that the General Assembly:

‘Recogniz[es] that the United Nations pursues multilingualism as a means of promoting, protecting and preserving diversity of languages and cultures globally, Recogniz[es] also that genuine multilingualism promotes unity in diversity and international understanding, and recognizing the importance of the capacity to communicate to the peoples of the world in their own languages, including in formats accessible to persons with disabilities, [and] stress[es] the need for strict observance of the resolutions and rules establishing language arrangements for the different bodies and organs of the United Nations…’ (65/311: 1)

However despite this de jure set up the de facto reality has seen a continued imbalance in the support given to these languages and in the linguistic practices of its membership, who have overwhelmingly favoured English.

Attempts have been made at Headquarters to redress this imbalance through rigorous inspections of the status of multilingual implementation across the system and via internal processes of review and reform across its organisations; the most recent precipitated by an inspection in 2011.

The UN has been vociferous in its continued support of multilingual provision citing its commitment to cultural and linguistic diversity. However increasing financial and administrative burdens, global challenges and realities have led to the emergence of regulations, recommendations and practices that run counter to this ideal. Moreover some argue that its language policy is somewhat ‘outdated’ and discriminatory given that a number of official languages spoken by Member States who joined subsequent to the initial policy formation fail to be recognised, forcing diplomats into negotiating positions in which they may not have the linguistic ‘upper hand’.

In a forthcoming publication (McEntee-Atalianis, in print) I detail the contemporary concerns of the UN with respect to their language policy and provision and relay findings from recent ethnographic and desk work carried out within the organisation.

The current system needs to be revised in order to foster a variety of language regimes across the ecology of the organisation. I presented these recommendations, with a specific focus on the role of member ‘agency’ in language policy formation for international organisations, at the recent ‘Symposium on Language and Exclusion’ hosted by the ‘Study Group on Language and the UN’ in New York last week, along with a number of other contributions from international scholars and UN language personnel who explored the role of language in the various activities of the UN (e.g. in international peacekeeping).

Contributors to the symposium discussed whether language has indeed just become ‘part of the plumbing’ within the organisation – a taken-for-granted resource used mechanistically – without regard for its power to include or exclude stakeholders, members and individuals in the field.

The overwhelming conclusion was that whilst the organisation has made some strides since its last inspection report (as detailed in A/69/282), it still has a long way to go to reform its current policy and practices to ensure it meets its goal of linguistic equity.

Like many organisations however the UN is difficult to penetrate. It has an established ‘Outreach’ programme and has Memoranda of Understanding with a number of academic institutions (in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas) but these MoUs are predominantly established to train language personnel in order to subsequently service the organisation in its official and working languages. Recommendations were made for the UN to extend its mandate in order to work with academics to support internal and external operations and nurture linguistic regimes suitable for contemporary international/transnational demands.

It is time to extend the plumbing metaphor, to envisage and prioritise language as THE vital resource fundamental to the functioning of the system, not just a necessary installation.

  • McEntee-Atalianis, L.J. (in print) ‘Multilingualism and the Unitied Nations: Diplomatic Baggage or Passport to Success?’ In Ulrike Jessner & Claire Kramsch (Eds.) Multilingualism: The Challenges. Trends in Applied Linguistics. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Find out more

Share
. Reply . Category: Categories, Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags:

Pardon my foreign accent!

This post was contributed by Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele from Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communications.

In an increasingly multilingual world, more and more people are exposed to foreign accents, and if we use foreign languages ourselves, the chances are that we have our very own foreign accent.  Does a foreign accent matter?  Yes, says Moyer (2013) because it is so salient: “it is the means by which we make ourselves understood, and the yardstick by which others judge us, whether we like it or not”. A foreign accent can have unexpected social consequences.  Indeed, those with a strong foreign accent are often judged as less competent, less educated, less intelligent, and less trustworthy (Fuertes et al, 2011).  In other words, a foreign accent can be a heavy burden. Veronica Glab (2014), a Canadian-born Pole currently living in Madrid, describes how her “Polish and American accents came up like bile” when speaking Spanish, and how it made her feel like an outsider, causing a sense of failure.

It is really hard to get rid of a foreign accent when the foreign language learning started later in life as Glab can testify.  Only a small minority of late learners manage to speak a foreign language with a native-like accent.  They are typically people with good auditory working memory, i.e. people who can keep sounds in their short term memory for a longer time.  Other psycho-cognitive predictors are phonetic coding ability, an ability to sing and a high level of empathy (Hu et al, 2012).

Personality has also been mentioned by multilinguals as having an effect on their attitudes towards foreign accents. Glab wonders whether her foreign accent might be linked to her timidness and self-consciousness.

Having a slight French-Dutch accent in English, I was never too bothered by it as English speakers usually like French accents, which they tend to find “cute”.  My accent became a liability only once, in 2003, at the time of the second Gulf war.  Having been stopped for speeding in Independence, California, by a patriotic police officer, who told me the helicopter had followed me for half an hour through the desert, and caught me going over the 60 miles per hour limit .  Did I have an explanation for that?  My answer, but probably even more my French accent, did not please the officer.  Didn’t I realise, he asked, that the French were not welcome in the US? (It was the time of the “Liberty fries” – because the Americans weren’t allowed to use the F-word anymore).  I hastened to point out that I was Belgian, and that Belgium had not voted against the US in the UN.  Little did it matter.  My infraction, compounded by my French accent cost me $ 150.

What this little episode shows is that attitudes toward foreign accents vary according to the accent in question, and to the general socio-historical context.  It also shows that different people have different attitudes.  So what exactly affects attitudes towards foreign accents? We explored this question more systematically in a study that just came out (Dewaele & McCloskey, 2014). We collected data on attitudes towards the foreign accents of other people and the own foreign accent via an online questionnaire.  A total of 2035 multilinguals from around the world participated. We found that extraverted multilinguals, who were emotionally stable and tolerant of ambiguity were significantly less bothered by the foreign accents of others. Only more neurotic multilinguals were bothered by their own foreign accent. Unexpectedly, participants who knew more languages to a higher level were more negative about the foreign accent of others and their own. However, participants who grew up in an ethnically diverse environment, who had lived abroad and who were working in an ethnically diverse environment were significantly more positive about foreign accents. Women had a more negative attitude towards their own foreign accent – but not that of others.

It thus seems that how much we are bothered by foreign accents falls partly outside our conscious control as it depends on personality, language learning history, current linguistic practices and sociobiographical background.

Other posts by Professor Dewaele:

References

Dewaele, J.-M. & McCloskey, J. (2014). Attitudes towards Foreign accents among adult multilingual language users. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development

Fuertes, J.N., Gottdiener, W.H., Martin, H., Gilbert, T.C., & Giles, H. (2011). A meta-analysis of the effects of speakers’ accents on interpersonal evaluations. European Journal of Social Psychology, 42, 120-133.

Hu, X., Ackermann, H., Martin, J.A., Erb, M., Winkler, S., & Reiterer, S. (2012). Language aptitude for pronunciation in advanced second language (L2) learners: Behavioural predictors and neural substrates. Brain and Language doi:10.1016/j.bandl.2012.11.006.

Moyer, A. (2013). Foreign Accent: The Phenomenon of Non-native Speech. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Share
. Read all 5 comments . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , , ,

Exploring Intercultural Communication: Language in Action

This post was contributed by Professor Zhù Huá, of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication. Professor Huá’s book, Exploring Intercultural Communication: Language in Action, is published by Routledge.

In a recent episode of Downton Abbey, Mr Carson, the butler of the house and a master of etiquette, met the black jazz singer Ross for the first time. Overcome by Ross’s skin colour, he struggled with words. All he could come up with was ‘Have you considered visiting Africa?’

Those days of social and cultural compartmentalization of different racial groups are long gone.  We meet, interact and build relationships with ‘others’ who may look different, speak different language(s) or are guided by different values from ‘us’, either by choice or by chance in various social spaces, due to a bundle of processes including globalisation and technological advances. Intercultural Communication Studies, pioneered by the American Anthropologist, Edward Hall, in the 1950s to research the cultures of the ’enemies’ of the US at that time, are primarily interested in understanding how people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds interact with each other, and what impact such interactions have on group relations, as well as individuals’ identities, attitudes and behaviours.

Intercultural communication naturally entails the use of language and language is key to understanding culture. When you offer tea to a visitor and she says ‘no, thank you’, how do you know that she is not just being polite or ‘indirect’? After all, in some parts of the world such as East Asia, declining first before accepting someone’s offer is the preferred norm of behaviour. When a student remains ‘quiet’ and ‘passive’ in the classroom, how much can we attribute non-participation to the cultural factor and can we assume active participation means success?  We all seem to know students who are quiet in the classroom but produce excellent course work!

Going to the commercial side of things, does it surprise you that Häagen-Daz ice cream is not Danish, but made in Minneapolis, US? Why is ‘Frenchness’ commodified and displayed for sale through popular books  ‘French women do not get fat’, ‘French women do not sleep alone’ and ‘French parents do not give in’?  What led to the closure of Tesco branches in the Unites States and China? When you travel to a new place, how do you think of the general advice offered by some tourist websites and guidebooks on culturally specific etiquette, customs, practices and national character? Are they helpful or do they merely reinforce cultural stereotypes? I have come across a website offering advice on touring in China. It says ‘Chinese people are inherently shy and modest. They do not display emotion and feelings in public and find speaking bluntly unnerving.’  For a cultural insider, these comments seem very foreign.

Yet, sometimes culture is blamed when it should not be. Last December, a news story appeared in many English language newspapers.  It was alleged that the newly appointed Swedish ambassador to Iran, Peter Tejler, insulted the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by ‘exposing the soles of his shoes’ when he was sitting with his legs crossed during a formal meeting. The Atlantic Wire has gone one step further and invited an expert from the University of West Florida to explain that it was a taboo in the Muslim culture to show the sole of a shoe, because soles are ‘considered dirty, closest to the ground, closer to the devil and farther away from God’. However, a number of Iranian students and scholars I talked to following the incident found the news headline bewildering, to say the least. They attested that similar to many other cultures, it was nothing unusual to sit with legs crossed in their home culture and whether exposing soles or not was not a problem at all. With their help, I traced back to the Arabic newspaper, Asriran, where the news first appeared. It turned out that the Swedish diplomatic was frowned upon not because he exposed the sole of his shoe, but because he breached a diplomatic etiquette by sitting too comfortably and crossing legs in a formal diplomatic meeting.

Exploring Intercultural CommunicationIntercultural communication permeates our everyday life in many different and complex ways. In the book, Exploring Intercultural Communication: Language in Action (published by Routledge, 2014), I use a ‘back to front’ structure, starting with the practical concerns of intercultural communication in five sites – language classroom, workplace, business, family and studying/travelling abroad. I then focus on the question ‘how to communicate effectively and appropriately in intercultural interactions’. In the third part, I go behind the questions of what and how and examine key theories, models and methodological considerations in the study of intercultural communication.  The main message of the book, I believe, is that intercultural communication provides an analytical lens to differences we see and experience in our daily social interactions with other people who may look different from us, speak a different language, or speak the same language in a different way.

Share
. Reply . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , ,