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Different tongues…

Sunday, January 14th, 2007 @ 9:35 pm
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Posted in  General, Literature

Here I am back to the UK after my Christmas travels and notice the two languages co-existing in my head…I went for group supervision on Friday and my english was coming out with errors…not a big deal really…what is more revealing in terms of cultural adjustmement is the time it takes me to start dreaming in the language of the country I inhabit each time…

I know remember reading that essay by Stanley on “Different tongues”. With thanks and acknowledgements, I here present some extracts of this study aiming at exploring “how the personal experience of changing language and culture raises the awareness of cultural, social, and personal issues in counsellors. Are they able to offer something “in addition” during their sessions and if so, what?

Stanley writes:

“My findings are evidence that with the change of language there is a change of identity over a period of time. The time factor is important as with length of time clear dividing lines between the original language/culture and the foreign language/culture diminish. Marcos (1976) draws attention to the importance of understanding clients’ linguistic and cultural experience and its implications for their identity formation. Palmer & Laungani (1999) consider this an important issue in the counselling of multicultural clients. Burck (1997) regards it as invaluable in family therapy to bridge the gap between parents and their children born and growing up in a different cultural environment from theirs and for second generation immigrants in general. It also proves the existential theory that one’s identity is not a fixture. It is self-created in the process of becoming “who I want to be” with the awareness of “who I do not want to be”. Van Deurzen (1996) suggests that it is almost a must to have different cultural experiences to become a good existential therapist!

The transpersonal model of working with opposites is a positive tool to help people in finding their own cultural identity, which, in my opinion, is one of the aims in counselling. It does not only imply different continents, but also different cultures within the same country, i.e. Scotland, Wales and Ireland, the different regions of England with their varied religious, political, and social groups.

The concept of chosen and created identities is not a new phenomenon (Palmer & Laungani , 1999).

The significance, awareness, and the benefits of bringing a different cultural element into counselling as experienced by all participants supports claims made by Flegenheimer (1989), Van Deurzen (1996), Burck (1997), Clauss (1998) and Palmer & Laungani (1999). My findings are that counsellors and clients with different cultural backgrounds do not share the same assumption. There is evidence that working with different assumptions is an advantage as it opens doors to look at issues from different perspectives and thereby uncovers and removes prejudices and stereotypes. It moves on the changing process in both counsellor and client. Palmer & Laungani (1999) oppose this.

The ‘getting stuck’ phenomenon, the inner struggle of finding the right word, is not discussed in previous literature. I wonder whether the authors avoid recognising their own “not knowing” situation because they see themselves in an expert position and are therefore likely to abuse their power. Movahedi’s comment (1996) of playing a role when using language interpretations with an authoritative punch intensifies my concern that psychoanalysts, consciously or unconsciously, tend to impose their interpretations onto clients. From my findings it is evident that the fear and awareness of ‘getting stuck’ creates a positive tool to work congruently with clients – the conscious checking out of meanings and feelings of words with clients, of not jumping to one’s own conclusions, offering clients alternatives to consider what they really mean and want and therefore creating more choices for change. There is enough evidence to say that polyglot counsellors are not taking for granted that they understand and are understood and that through their awareness of language limitations, highlighted by the different vocabulary other languages offer, they are more attentive and more careful of how they say things and they are more alert to listen to how things are said. In Burck (1997) Dwivedi highlights the richness of Asian languages and their complexity to describe relationships which encodes distinctions made in relationships not possible in English. This applies to some other languages as well.

There is evidence in my findings that British counsellors learn a lot from their foreign colleagues during their training together. Through discussions and groupwork the awareness of issues like power, racism, culture and prejudice are raised, in particular the issue of communication as far as language is concerned. This is a necessary and important contribution in Britain were different languages and their implications is a neglected area of attention in training and therapy – to be aware of the fear of isolation when people struggle to express themselves and do not find the right words. The importance of considering these issues in training and to benefit from them is recognised by Burck (1997).

If there is a choice of language between counsellor and client it is evident that language switching during sessions helps to work from the same frame of reference. My research proves that if counsellor and client share the same mother tongue during sessions the relationship becomes closer, they are more on the same wavelength through shared cultural experience. This supports Rozensky & Gomez (1983).

If there is no language match between counsellor and client my research supports the view of Baxter & Cheng (1996), Lago & Thompson (1996) and Burck (1997) that therapy involving a translator is feasible but not ideal as the exchange of incorrect information can affect the outcome in counselling terms and make it less effective.

The article written by Andrews & Carroll (1998) claiming that bilinguals have a diminished memory recall is quite disturbing in my view as it implies that despite all the checking out of meaning of words, despite all the empathy and shared cultural experiences counsellors might still miss something the clients are saying because of diminished memory recall which is beyond the individual’s control.

The literature does not discuss how foreign-born counsellors adjust to their chosen world of counselling. On the whole counsellors feel accepted and respected here but there is frustration that counselling is not part of the mainstream health care provision as in some other countries. My findings also show that the British counselling world is considered to be very white and very British despite the ‘equal opportunities policy’.

My research highlights the need and benefit for personal therapy in the mother tongue of the counsellors as “it would reach parts that therapy in English just would not reach”. However, English is considered as the language for supervision.

It also shows the importance of including language issues in training – “people focus when they look on continents and focus on skin colour, but they don’t look at language as much.”


Counsellors and clients are encircled by language/culture, which is not fixed but can change with political, social, and personal circumstances and events. The length of time lived in a different language/culture during various life stages changes the perception and the way of expressing experience and emotions and creates a reversible change in the individual’s identity.

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