top of page
  • marieasaolu

Multilingual therapy: Speaking more than one language in therapy.

‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.

If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart’

Nelson Mandela

I moved in the UK, 13 years ago; I remember my first job in a nursery sitting in front of my manager having a ‘conversation’, her talking with a Scottish accent and me not understanding a word. I remember the feeling of being held back, trapped because I could think and problem solved but could not express it, and I remember being treated differently, being talked at slowly or loudly…

I did my counselling training in English but did not reflect on what it meant to be a bilingual therapist as I battled feeling of not being good enough, of struggling to sometimes grasp some concepts. Then I got my first French client…

I remember thinking what if my French is not good enough! But what surprised me the most was the transference, the projection, the identification, suddenly everything felt closer.

As I started to work with more French speaking client, I observed feeling different than when working in English: a professional-self less strong, a familiarity and a sharing of similar experiences: Brexit, accent, rejection, ‘excuse my French’, finding French food, feeling bi-rooted ( Hakim (2019) described being bi-rooted as holding both realities of ‘home’ at the same time, living simultaneously with multiple point of reference). Boundaries would get more tested, questions about what brought me here appeared, where I was from…

The Multilingual therapeutic frame:

My own experience as a client and counsellor has led me to agree with Beverley Costa (2020) that ‘a multilingual client is different from a monolingual client’ (p8).

Her work has offered me a way to build a multilingual perspective in the therapeutic frame, thinking about different aspect of linguistic when working with clients:

· Linguistic Privilege: As English-speaking therapists have you thought about the privilege of being able to speak the world’s most powerful languages?

· Linguistic Empathy: Linguistic empathy being the work to ‘understand that a client may be expressing different parts of themselves in different languages [which] requires the sensitivity and openness to linguistic difference’ (Costa, 2020,p12)

· Linguistic agency and power: Different languages can carry different social norms, taboo and experiences. It might be easier to work on a trauma in the non-traumatised language for example.

· Linguistic attachment and loss: We have an attachment to our language and to how it has been learned, sometimes that attachment can be so strong that it is hard to learn a new language, sometimes the home language can be so painful that the second language is mainly used.

So what language should we use in the counselling room?

Sometimes both. Multilingual client might use code-switching to convey some emotions and experience, in later life can circumvent the constraining adult voices from our childhoods. We hear those voices in the languages in which those adults spoke to us.’ (Costa 2020, p18)

Language is more than words, it encompasses our reality, our identity, our past, present and future. With a new language we can build ourself a new identity.

‘When we change languages, both our worldview and our identities get transformed. We need to become new selves to speak a language that does not come from our core self, a language that does not reflect our inner-connectedness with the culture it represents’ (Imberti in Costa 2020, p32)

As professionals working with language in talking therapy, have we thought about the languages of our clients?

If you want to know more there is resources and training on this website:


Beverley Costa & Jean-Marc Dewaele , Counselling and Psychotherapy Research (2013): Psychotherapy across languages: beliefs, attitudes and practices of monolingual and multilingual therapists with their multilingual patients, Counselling and Psychotherapy Research: Linking research with practice, DOI: 10.1080/14733145.2013.838338. Available at :

Beverley Costa (2020) , Other tongues. Psychological therapies in a multilingual world, Monmouth: PCCS books.

Hakim Dowek, Nancy (2019) A phenomenological exploration of the lived experience of being ‘bi-rooted’ / ‘poly-rooted’, the reciprocal relations between those roots and their impact upon the sense of self. DProf thesis, Middlesex University / New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling. [Thesis] This version is available at:

153 views0 comments


bottom of page