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:


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.

. Read all 3 comments . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , , ,

“Most obscene title of a peer-reviewed scientific article” – an amusing award for a serious academic paper

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

This post contains strong language.

As an applied linguist and a multilingual I have always been interested in the communication of emotion in a person’s multiple languages.  It seems that telling jokes in a foreign language, declaring love or promising something in a foreign language does not quite have the same resonance as it typically has in a native language (see also my taster lecture – contains strong language!).

One particularly interesting area is how multilinguals swear.  Indeed, swearwords in a foreign language don’t sound quite as bad as the ones in the native language, and students spending some time abroad are eager to pick up some of these words that their teachers did not want to teach them.  However, these enthusiasts abroad quickly realize that the people around them do not necessarily approve of the liberal use of swearwords.  What sounds like “funny” words to the foreign-language user can in fact be deeply upsetting words to the native language-users.

I remember how Livia, my trilingual daughter (English, Dutch, French as first languages), aged 7, playing with a Belgian bilingual boy (Dutch, French as first languages), who, when he heard she also had English as a first language, exclaimed that he knew English too, after which he uttered Fuck you!, which made my daughter jump and switch to English: But you can’t say this!  The boy looked surprised at her emotional reaction.  He had clearly no idea that this funny expression would upset his friend.

What matters when swearing is to know how to do it “appropriately”, in other words, know the context in which certain swearwords and expressions may be tolerated or appreciated.  For foreign language-users it may take years, and even then they typically avoid them because the reactions they elicit may differ from native users using the same words in the same situation.  I think that it is because swearing is an indication of “in-group” membership.  However, if you have a foreign accent you clearly don’t belong to the “in-group”, and you’re expected not to use these words, and not make fun of the head of state or queen/king.

In 2010, I published a paper:  ‘Christ fucking shit merde!’ Language preferences for swearing among maximally proficient multilinguals. Sociolinguistic Studies, 4 (3), 595-614. (doi : 10.1558/sols.v4i3.595). I investigated language preferences for swearing among multilinguals using an on-line questionnaire. They consisted of 386 adult multilinguals who had declared that they were maximally proficient in their first and second languages and used both languages constantly.

I discovered that despite similar levels of self-perceived proficiency and frequency of use in the first language and second language, the first language was used significantly more for swearing and first language swearwords were perceived to have a stronger emotional resonance. An analysis of additional interview data confirmed the findings of the quantitative analysis, also highlighting cultural issues in swearing.

The working title of the paper was Language preferences for swearing among maximally proficient multilinguals until I heard an Anglo-Canadian author, Nancy Huston, who has lived in Paris for many years, being interviewed on France Inter about her swearing behaviour.  She explained that when she needs to express a strong emotion, like sudden anxiety, or when dropping a hammer on her foot, she swears in English. The journalist then asked her Vous dites quoi? ‘What do you say’?  Nancy answers: Je dis Christ fucking shit merde! ‘I say Christ fucking shit merde!’  (“merde” meaning ‘shit’, is a high-frequency French swearword).  She’s surprised at the presence of the French swearword and adds: Ah je peux ajouter merde! ‘Ah, I can add merde!’.

I thought this quote would be the perfect illustration of my paper, namely that while multilinguals generally prefer swearing in their first language, some second language swearwords may creep into their core emotional vocabulary as a result of years of affective socialization in the culture of the second language.

I had to argue with the guest editor and the general editor Sociolinguistic Studies to keep the swearwords uncensored in the title.  I explained that it would make no sense to censor them, as the code-switching would become invisible, and that it was exactly the phenomenon I was interested in. They agreed in the end.

A few days ago, to my amused surprise, I won the award for “for most obscene title of a peer-reviewed scientific article”.  Merde alors!

Other blog posts by Professor Dewaele:

. Read all 30 comments . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , , , ,