Elisabeth AuerPsychoanalytic Psychotherapy and Counselling in Twickenham

Therapy and Language. Wall

Psychotherapy & Counselling and Language

As a German speaking psychotherapist and counsellor I often work with German speaking people or people who grew up with a language other than English.

In psychotherapy and counselling, the language is one of our primary means by which we transmit information about cultural traditions and beliefs and how we articulate emotions. It can also be a source of identity.

Our conceptual knowledge of the world derives from our experience. It is usually stored in the part of the brain along with our first language. While a bilingual person masters the second language, direct conceptual links are formed from the second language to the conceptual memory.

Little is known regarding the encoding and storage of emotion words (like "love" or "fear") in bilingual memory. However, researchers have identified "differential patterns of usage as a function of language proficiency":
Some studies for example have found that talking about embarrassing topics in counselling is easier in one’s second language. The language, then, has a distancing function.

It has also been suggested that learned emotion words in the first language are stored at a deeper level of representation than their second language synonyms. The reasons for that is, that emotion words in the first language are normally experienced in more contexts and have been applied in various ways. Therefore, encountering an emotion word in the second language is likely to activate less different associations.

In therapy with my bi- or multilingual clients, I pay attention to the patterns of language. Words can have different meanings depending on context, the topic of the discourse and the conceptual and emotional relevance. My own experience of working in two languages and my several attempts to learn, and gain insight into, other languages (French, Farsi, Arabic, Italian) sensitized me to this topic.


(Santiago-Rivera, A. L., & Altarriba, J. (2002). The role of language in therapy with the Spanish–English bilingual client. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 33(1), 30-38.)

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