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Does your therapist speak your (first) language?

Psychotherapy or counselling for bilingual speakers is more successful with a bilingual therapist or L1 speaker, according to a review by psychologists Kinga Izsóf Jurásová and Linda Kissová at the University of Trnava in Slovakia.

Most bilingual speakers have a dominant language, usually, but not necessarily their mother tongue, L1. A different language might be used at school and become dominant, and language dominance can even vary over a lifespan.

Whether or not the speaker is fluent in other languages, L1 is associated with greater emotionality as language learning in childhood involves the limbic system, which processes emotion. On the other hand, decisions made in L2 tend to be more rational. For example, moral judgements are less emotionally influenced when made in L2.

Bilingual speakers may be unable to find equivalent words in each language to express feelings and so prefer to express some feelings in a particular language. However, positive emotional expressions, such as affectionate language used with children, tends to be expressed in L1, while negative emotions, such as those associated with discussing a traumatic event, tend to be expressed in L2. Thus, bilingual speakers can potentially regulate their emotions simply by switching languages.

The authors of the review are especially interested in the experience of bilingual speakers in psychotherapy, where this divide in language use can have both advantages and disadvantages. For instance, it can make it possible to talk about feelings that would otherwise be overwhelming in L1, but using L2 could also block those emotions from being fully expressed.

Clearly the language used during therapy can influence what the bilingual client shares with the therapist and the therapeutic outcome. Language switching in particular can enable the discussion of very emotional issues such as those associated with shame or trauma, but this requires a therapist confident in both languages.

For bilingual speakers living among L2 speakers it may be very difficult, if not impossible, to have counselling in their L1, but a meta-analysis of 76 studies found that counselling is twice as effective in L1 compared to L2. Any initial diagnosis is also likely to be influenced by the language used, as cognitive and personality tests have found to score differently for bilingual speakers depending on whether they are taken in L1 or L2.

REFERENCE

  • Izsóf Jurásová, K, & Kissová, L (2021). ‘Language emotionality and the verbal expression of emotional experiences by bilinguals’. ČeskoslovenskáPsychologie,65(5), 474-489. https://doi.org/10.51561/ cspsych.65.5.474 libezproxy.open. ac.uk/10.1111/jcal.12610
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Gill Ragsdale
Gill Ragsdale
Gill has a PhD in Evolutionary Psychology from Cambridge, and teaches Psychology with the Open University, but also holds an RSA-Cert TEFL. Gill has taught EFL in the UK, Turkey, Egypt and to the refugees in the Calais 'Jungle' in France. She currently teaches English to refugees in the UK.
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