Moving to another country is an exciting experience, but all the challenges it brings can also cause stress and sometimes make us feel alone and misunderstood. Learning a new language and adapting to another culture, without the supportive network of family and friends, can end up taking a toll on our mental health.
Psychotherapy is a valuable tool that we can use to deal with emotional problems, but when living abroad, the choice of the psychologist is of greater importance, especially if it is a country where is spoken a language different than our.
In the United States, for example, there are more than 59 million people of Hispanic origin, many of whom would probably be more comfortable with the support of a “psicólogo en español” (Spanish-speaking psychologist). In fact, the demand for Spanish-speaking mental health professionals is increasing across the country, especially in cities like Los Angeles, where there is a large Hispanic community.
Speaking the same language promotes emotional expression
In psychological therapy, speaking the same language is a plus. For psychotherapy to work it is essential that psychologist and patient establish a connection, that they are able to find common ground from which to build the healing therapeutic relationship.
Shared language and cultural keys are vital to underpin this relationship. Speaking the same language facilitates the exchange, allowing the persons to share their thoughts, fears, beliefs and insecurities more naturally. It is no coincidence that a study conducted at Trinity University, found that patients express more psychopathological symptoms in their mother language than in a foreign one.
Patients are likely to feel more comfortable and secure with a therapist who speaks the same language or even shares their cultural roots. They are also likely to feel less judged and can more easily find the right words to express what they feel or think.
In fact, researchers from St. John University found that experiences expressed in native languages are more elaborate and have a greater component of imagery. These psychologists also found that the content expressed by the patients in their mother tongue had a greater emotional intensity.
It is also known that therapy in the patient’s language evokes more negative memories, such as experiences of rejection and abandonment, which can be key to understanding the life history of that person and helping him overcome his emotional problems.
Our experiences are encoded in our mother tongue
Although we are bilingual, many of our emotional experiences have been created and are memorized in our native language. That means that most of our memories, feelings and emotions are encoded in our mother tongue.
There is a psycholinguistic theory suggesting that bilingual people have an inherent duality, which stems from their bilingual/bicultural lives. Those people would have two sets of experiences and feelings and encoding and decoding associated with two ways of experiencing and understanding the world, which are constructed, organized, and experienced in each language.
This means that our “self” can experience a kind of doubling. On the one hand, it contains all those childhood and youth experiences encoded in our mother tongue and, on the other hand, the new experiences and ways of seeing the world that we have been forming in another country with a second language.
Each self-representation evokes a different culture, as well as a different developmental experience and personal and social identities. When people learn a second language as adults, they develop a second set of mental representations with words and symbols that do not always correspond to the same meanings of the first language.
For this reason, it can be difficult to express all our emotional richness and condense the first life experiences in a foreign language. In fact, translating those experiences into another language can generate an emotional distance between the “self” that lived them and the current “self”. Remembering events from our past and trying to translate them into another language can take away part of their emotional impact, which prevents working on the affective sphere in depth as part of the psychotherapeutic process.
The shared language, key to the success of psychotherapy
If patients are not fluent in the therapist’s language, they may feel insecure, uncomfortable, or even unable to express accurately what they are feeling, which can become a barrier to therapy and hinder their progress.
When psychotherapy is carried out in a language acquired later in life, there is always a risk of losing some emotional meanings that are not easily translatable, which means that details vital to the success of the treatment could be left out.
On the other hand, if the therapist does not share the same cultural and linguistic referents, it is likely that subtle, but essential, nuances to understand the patient’s experiences and his way of seeing the world escape him. He may find it more difficult to decipher certain cultural expressions and even non-verbal information conveyed through silences and gestures.
A study conducted at Bulmershe Court University exploring the psychotherapeutic process in a foreign language, found that therapists had a harder time establishing a connection and had to make an extra effort to understand the patient. In fact, their main concern in therapy was cultural and linguistic distance, which affected the necessary emotional harmony.
For this reason, in general, psychotherapy in our native language is twice as effective compared to that carried out in a foreign one. The patient not only feels more comfortable, but the psychologist will be able to understand him better, which will make the therapeutic process flow more naturally. On the other hand, difficulties in translating his experiences and emotions into a different language, as well as the psychologist’s misunderstanding, increase the chances that the person will abandon the therapy.
In summary, shared language and cultural codes are particularly important in a healing and connecting process such as psychotherapy. The native language is a tool that allows us to reconnect with our past and express our emotions and experiences in a more authentic and unfiltered way. That drives the healing process.
Therefore, if you live in a foreign country where is spoken another language, you may want to consider finding a therapist who shares your roots. Luckily, technology offers us the possibility of making online consultations, so it will not be difficult to find a psychologist who speaks your mother tongue just searching “psicólogo near me” wherever you are. Thus therapy will be a more rewarding experience and, above all, effective.
Bowker, P. & Richards, B. (2004) Speaking the same language? A qualitative study of therapists’ experiences of working in English with proficient bilingual clients. Psychodynamic Practice: Individuals, Groups and Organisations; 10(4): 459–478.
Pérez Foster, R. (1996) The bilingual self-duet in two voices. Psychoanalytic Dialogues; 6: 99- 121.
Barroso, F. & Muñoz, M. (1993) Autobiographical memory in bilinguals. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research; 22(3): 319-338.
Segovia-Price, C. & Cuellar, I. (1981)Effects of language and related variables on the expression of psychopathology in Mexican American psychiatric patients. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences; 3(2): 145-160.