Hi, and welcome to today’s post, where I’ll be focusing on the importance of our native language when going to therapy.
I will focus on Spanish and English in this post as those are the two languages I speak fluently and to a native level.
This applies to other languages as well – substitute these as is convenient throughout this post.
The importance of having therapy in our native language will depend on many factors, such as when we started learning and speaking English (or another language), and how comfortable and confident we are with the language.
But we must be more than comfortable and confident speaking it fluently.
This comfort and confidence must also be in relation to our emotional language.
There are some things we learned to process in our native language that will be tricky to translate into our second or third language.
Here are some things to consider and think about, that point toward the importance of having therapy in our first language.
The use of language varies from very simple, to more complex, and being able to do this might require time and effort and practice.
As mentioned above, our ability to process emotional and more complex information in a second language will take time.
I was lucky enough to have moved here with a high level of English, but I know that this is not the case for many people that choose to move to another country with a language different than theirs.
I see clients that speak Spanish because they want to be able to fully express themselves and that means using emotional language that they’re used to since they were children.
It is not that they can’t communicate it in English, it is just that there might be no emotional link to the words in this second language, and that is an important aspect of processing emotional stuff.
When we are distressed, the last thing we want to do is try to find the words in a language that is not our first.
Moving to a new country with a new language that we might or might not be familiar with, is daunting in itself.
The culture might be radically or slightly different to where they moved from.
This in itself can cause a great deal of anxiety and worry.
Add to that trying to find services in a new country that we have no idea how it works (I had this when I moved here, not with the language, but with how to find a GP, how to sign up, where to go for this or that, and I had the language, it was everything else that was new! As time passed, my confidence grew and it was all fine, but it took time…)
Trying to navigate new surroundings and ways of doing things might get us into fight, flight, freeze reactions, and finding someone to speak to in our own language, that fully gets us, will be helpful in moving forward with our new lives.
Feeling understood might mean we feel like we are sitting in front of someone that understands our culture a bit better because the common language, and also will understand our nuances, if we were to go into “slang” or more colloquial wording that a non-native speaker might not grasp unless we explain it.
I also teach Spanish, and with more advanced students I sometimes forget myself and start speaking in slang. They generally like this as they get an experience from a native’s perspective. They can see how people might speak when in the company of other Spanish speakers and they generally find it insightful and amusing.
In the therapy room, speaking in this same manner to a client, in a colloquial, culturally similar way, might help them feel less alone and at ease with their new lives.
Adapting to the changes might become more manageable if there is someone around that can help them through the uncertainty, distress when navigating these new ways of doing things and speaking in a new language too.
I’ve also done interpreting work for people, working with them through a benefits claim or a GP appointment.
Latin Americans in particular have a way with words that means we tell a long story about many things – not everyone, not all the time, I’m generalising – it is important that, in the case of myself as an interpreter, that I explain to the professional that I will let them know what the person is saying once they’re done telling their story.
It might be my therapeutic background, but I’d never interrupt and tell someone “get to the point” or “just answer the question” which is probably what the professional wanted at that point. Instead, I can explain to them “we are very wordy in our countries, it’s all fine, you’ll get your answer in a moment”.
Normalising for both sides might be important at this point.
If it’s just me and the client in the room, we can have a chat about the culture and how it might be different, what they’re finding tricky and how to navigate these new ways of being and relationg.
Realising they are not on their own many times brings peace of mind.
I have to say not all of my clients come in this kind of distress about the language or the new culture. It varies and it depends on where they’re originally from or what issues they bring to therapy.
It might be not related at all to the language, apart from the initial bond of cultural understanding and emotional processing.
Depending on the depth of knowledge of the language, therapists will be confident in working in a second or third language, and clients will be confident in coming to see them.
I’ll give you a personal account of my journey with the English language, and why I feel confident and comfortable working in both languages.
I went to a bilingual school, where the emphasis was more on speaking and writing in English – I can write much better in English than I can in Spanish because of this!
I also went to practice my English in the United States from the age of 9 until 18.
I therefore can speak, write, and connect emotionally in both Spanish and English.
This is why I have been able to work and study and set up my private practice with English and Spanish speaking clients.
It is a great feeling to be able to offer this service, and a relief for companies and clients alike that there is someone like me around for them to talk.
Distance isn’t an issue either as I work online, so people can contact me for sessions from anywhere in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.
In order for me to work in a third language (if I wanted to learn German or move to Germany, for example), there would need to be years of experience and practice, and even then it might be tricky for me to understand a native German’s emotional language in German.
I am of German heritage and “should” really get into my German learning, but I find it so hard to do at this older age. I might try to do it again soon. Who knows!
People have said to me, what if you moved to Germany and worked with German speaking clients?
Well, I could if they spoke to me in English, but then we have the same second-language emotional barriers as above!
Also….Why would a German client see me in a second language (unless they spoke English in the same way I learned it and were emotionally comfortable and confident in both languages!).
I would not be able to do so, I would not be confident or comfortable counselling someone in German, with basic knowledge of the language, and even less knowledge of how they process or talk about emotional stuff in German.
It would be very tricky and take a lot of time!
Add to that my aclimatising to the way things are done in Germany, which I imagine are very different from what I’m now used to in England and even more different than how I remember things from Guatemala.
Interesting experiment though, but not one I’m willing to try right now as I’m quite happy living here in the South of England.
More food for thought….
So, to sum up, therapy in our own language is very important for more than one reason.
Have you found any more reasons that I missed in this post?
Leave me a message and I’ll be happy to update or write a post on your comments and suggestions.
Until next week!