Do we need to use our mother tongue to benefit from therapy?
As we embrace diversity on so many levels and make inclusion an important goal, there are still areas which are rarely talked about and one of those is the language of talking therapies. And when I say language, I mean simply the language that is used in the room.
While the number of therapists coming from different backgrounds is increasing, your choices are still very limited if you are trying to find a therapist who speaks a mother tongue other than English, is near enough for you to see and has availability. But how important it is really to use your mother tongue in therapy? Do we lose something if we speak a second language in the room?
As a psychodynamic counsellor, it was a requirement during my training to be in therapy. My mother tongue is Hungarian, but it wasn’t asked if I wanted to see a therapist from my own background, I was offered a list of English therapists and I chose the nearest to my place. I got lucky, we formed a good alliance and she even said to me if I felt there was something I wanted to say in Hungarian, I could and she would do her best to understand - not so much literally but emotionally.
It was much later I started to consider what it meant to me that we did not share my mother tongue. Since then I have had lots of opportunities to see many sides of the same dice - I worked with clients who did and many more who didn’t speak my mother tongue. Hopefully, the following points can aid your decision.
When it comes to the question of which is better (mother tongue vs. second language), there is no clear winner. Language can become a barrier if it prevents communication between client and counsellor. If the language is not accessible enough for one party, it can lead to dissatisfaction, misinterpretation and a sense of unbearable inequality. So if you feel that your language skills are preventing you from communicating and understanding each other then it’s probably time to choose a therapist who speaks your mother tongue or someone who is willing and capable of working with an interpreter.
However, what is the best to do if you feel confident in your language skills? Would you still benefit from therapy regardless of which language is used to conduct the counselling?
The answer is yes, you would. First of all, verbal communication is a fragment of what actually takes place in the room. We pick up on feelings and non-verbal clues without any words. We share a lot more than words and our emotional experiences do not differ just because we come from different backgrounds. Sadness, anger, shame or joy, excitement and happiness do feel the same, no matter our language, nationality, class, gender, age etc.
There are also specific advantages to using a second language - it makes it easier to talk about taboos. Taboos are topics we are not supposed to talk about - however, these are often tied to our mother tongue, the “original” language of that culture, family, religion etc. that created those taboos. Therefore, people often find it much easier to bring them up and discuss them in their second language.
Similarly, painful events, traumatic experiences can feel less overwhelming as the second language comes with this sense of being one step removed from what occurred. Once again, our memories are bound to the language that was used at the time. When we recall them in a different language, we feel less affected by them.
Also, there might be times when you feel that a word or expression from your mother tongue describes something you cannot express in English. And there is nothing wrong with that. Say what you need to say and let your therapist work with it. Counselling is based on mutual trust and respect, and that includes respecting your origin and your language which is indeed part of your identity.
As I presented the advantages, we need to mention a possible disadvantage as well. It’s the other side of the coin - as the second language can function as a one-step removed way of communication, it can feel like you have not reached the depth of your experiences as early experiences in particular are preserved through your mother tongue. Consequently, you might feel there are some feelings which you cannot bring to the surface.
All in all, if you are considering therapy, you may choose what is both available and responsive to your needs. The best therapist for you is not necessarily the one who speaks your mother tongue but a person who is ready to listen and learn. I recently came across this saying: “knowledge is an obstacle of learning”. Why you may ask? Because if we believe we already know something we stop learning about it. Find a therapist who is ready to learn about you, whoever you might be, regardless of origin and background.