Bilingual Therapy: Does Language Change You?

Are you bilingual? What’s your mother tongue? Do you use it at home? Do you share the same first language with your partner/spouse? What language do you use in your day-to-day communications with one another? Are you in therapy? What language do you use there? Why? Have you ever tried language switching (using more than one language interchangeably)?

As the world gets smaller, cross-cultural relationships are becoming less and less an exception. Everywhere we look, we see cultural diversity. Here is the big question: If you are living in a foreign country, if you have multicultural relationships and/or family, do you ever find that you change when speaking one language compared to another? Every language is different, and language carries cultural – sometimes even moral – values with it.

Throughout my life I have had many teachers guiding me through the reality of cultural diversity – sometimes they were children on a school yard, other times they were students in a lecture hall, colleagues in different work environments, friends over coffee, cousins on the phone, even pen pals, all in different corners of the world. I have been blessed with a wide range of teachers, enough to know cultural heritage could and should not be ignored – especially in a therapeutic setting.

Studies show that we can express our emotions more clearly and accurately when we’re using our first language. More and more therapists are using language switching to make sure bilingual individuals and couples could access and express their feelings during therapy sessions. If and when one language is ignored, important aspects of the experience may be left unnoticed. I strongly support the use of the mother tongue in some, if not all, sessions.

Then there is the other side of the coin: Some people find it easier to talk about sensitive issues in another language simply because it’s a social taboo in their own culture. If you grew up in an environment where sex was a taboo or avoided topic, you might be surprised how easier it might be for you to talk about sexual issues in another language. Similarly, for some of us, it is easier to talk about traumas in a language other than the one in which the trauma was experienced.

Race, culture, beliefs, values, attitudes, religion all have impacts on language and these are reflected in the therapy room. We need to be aware of the impact our languages have on us and utilize it.

The poem below, by Sujata Bhatt (who describes herself as “an Indian outside India”), is about how the poet remembers her mother tongue in her dreams, although she doesn’t use it any more.


You ask me what I mean

by saying I have lost my tongue.

I ask you, what would you do

if you had two tongues in your mouth,

and lost the first one, the mother tongue,

and could not really know the other,

the foreign tongue.

You could not use them both together

even if you thought that way.

And if you lived in a place you had to

speak a foreign tongue,

your mother tongue would rot,

rot and die in your mouth

until you had to “spit it out.”

I thought I spit it out

but over night while I dream,

(munay hutoo kay aakhee jeebh aakhee bhasha)

(may thoonky nakhi chay)

(parantoo rattray svupnama mari bhasha pachi aavay chay)

(foolnee jaim mari bhasha mari jeebh)

(modhama kheelay chay)

(fullnee jaim mari bhasha mari jeebh)

(modham pakay chay)

it grows back, a stump of a shoot

grows longer, grows moist, grows strong veins,

it ties the other tongue in knots,

the bud opens, the bud opens in my mouth,

it pushes the other tongue aside.

Everytime I think I’ve forgotten,

I think I’ve lost the mother tongue,

it blossoms out of my mouth.

Sujata Bhatt

Do you have a language you’ve lost?

Are you a different person speaking one language compared to another?

Think about it.