Am I BI-lingual or BYE-lingual: Navigating Multilingualism in Therapy

Contributed by Agustín Hayes – Open Mind Therapy – TCK, Expat, Digital Nomad Therapist

“Hey can you pass me a… a… coltello? Oh shoot… I… I can’t remember the word in English”. So many of us that are multilingual have been there. Honestly, the feeling of forgetting a word in your native tongue is extremely unsettling. Despite this, we wouldn’t trade our multilingual identity for the world. Every language is a microcosm, and the ability to see the world in a whole new light. Each tongue grants you access to a whole new universe of culture and people to communicate with, how amazing is that? What many people don’t consider though are the complicated, sometimes negative aspects of multilingualism. Often, speaking multiple languages turns your communication style into an agglomeration of the languages you speak and sayings you love in other tongues instead of the monolingual person you once were. The experience of being multilingual can have enormous implications on our day to day lives, especially when seeking therapy.

The philosopher and once Roman emperor Charlemagne was credited for saying that to speak a second language is to possess another soul, and I wholeheartedly agree. The cultural and linguistic nuances of each language that one absorbs are fascinating. I feel as though my personality is extremely affected by the language in which I am communicating. For example, in English I am more serious; likely because of the work-centered culture of the United States whose dialect of English I speak. On the other hand, in Portuguese I have a more laissez-faire attitude towards whatever I’m talking about, typical of Rio de Janeiro where I learned this tongue. Many linguists joke that multilingual people end up developing a very mild case of multiple personality disorder, how cool is that?

Now, when we’re absorbing personality traits from the languages we’re speaking and possessing these “multiple souls” a sort of identity crisis can come about in which one wonders, which language is truly me, moi, or yo? Many times, third culture kids and globally minded people are left grappling with this question. Even though they may speak the language of their passport country well, their schooling or work life is many times done in another language, therefore making this the tongue they feel most comfortable in. Not only this but, it’s also impossible to stay up to date with every slang word, meme, or joke a language acquires when you’re not living in a country that speaks said language. This can be distressing for people because language is a major factor in our national and therefore personal identity. Not only that, but others often question you’re your ability to speak English with a neutral “international school” accent or why you use random words from other languages if you’re from X country. These interactions tear down the disguise you’ve temporarily put up as being someone 100% from X country. This issue can be extremely distressing, as many times nationality is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of our own identity and answering the age-old question: “Tell me about yourself”.

This multilingual struggle forces one to ask, which language should I start therapy in? Ideally, the answer is all of them. Having a therapist that speaks the same or some of the same languages that you speak is optimal. No matter what you’re talking about, the ability to freely say the first word that comes to your mind regardless of which language it’s in, can be so important. Not only is being multilingual important for communicating well, but also for the cultural understanding that comes with speaking these different languages. For example, having a therapist understands the cultural implications of a word like saudades (intense longing for something) or desconstruido (the idea of renouncing ideas of toxic masculinity) beyond the dictionary meaning but into the true cultural implications adds a different level to the therapeutic relationship which is so important for effective therapy. Another benefit of seeking a multilingual therapist is that when doing different activities like speaking to your inner child or writing a letter to an ex-lover for closure, being able to do so in the language you spoke as a child or used to communicate with this ex-lover makes the experience significantly more effective and powerful.

This multilingual struggle is fascinating, and something that baffles most mental health professionals even though it affects an increasing amount of people with the rapid rates of globalization we’re seeing everywhere. Linguistic issues can have enormous impacts on your mental health, and finding a therapist familiar with this struggle is essential for truly feeling understood and seen by this person. The therapeutic relationship is the basis for any emotional healing we seek out in therapy, and this multilingual aspect of the relationship cannot be overlooked. Not only this, but the subsequent life experiences and cultural openness that multilingual therapists tend to have, often lead to a greater understanding for third culture kids and globally minded people’s experiences. An understanding which is essential to a successful therapeutic relationship. You’re not alone, your linguistic background or accent is a representation of who you are and what your experiences have been, you deserve to feel understood!

Author: Agustín Hayes – Open Mind Therapy – TCK, Expat, Digital Nomad Therapist

Agustín Hayes is a counseling psychologist registered with the Dutch Institute of Psychologists but living as a digital nomad. Agustín is a therapist specialized in working with third-culture kids, and expats who is fascinated by the intersection of culture and mental health. Multilingualism is a special topic for him as he speaks four languages and has two native tongues.