Monday, March 24, 2014

Therapy in Second Languages

The demand for therapists that speak another language is huge, especially in the realm of public mental health, where newly minted therapists are often first learning their craft.  Therapists who are bicultural and bilingual are hot commodities at public mental health agencies.  These therapists are often seen as the most able to provide culturally and linguistically competent services--and end up having caseloads loaded with non-English speakers.  I agree that bicultural therapists bring something to the table that a second language learner does not.

However, I have also noticed that therapists with second language skills shy away too often from the opportunity to work in their second language.  "I took Spanish in high school, but..."  Don't get me wrong, foreign language education is undoubtedly worse here than math and science, which are routinely trounced in the international rankings.  But criticism of our educational system aside, Americans in general, and too many helping professionals in particular, have diagnosable social phobia when it comes to using a second language. 

No surprise here, the only remedy for the American epidemic of monolingualism is exposure therapy 101.

Learning to be a therapist is anxiety-provoking.  Learning to be a therapist in a language that you feel socially awkward in is painful.  But guess what, this is what your client feels every single day when interacting with the dominant culture.  And in my experience, being able to understand this, develop compassion for this, and bring this experience to the fore with clients, builds an alliance that is powerful and unique to being a second language learner.

For new therapists, working in a second language is kind of like learning to drive while also learning how to drive a stick shift.  It's scary, but how bad do you want to get where you're going?


  1. I can definitely relate. I find that clients are so appreciative that I speak Spanish & they do not expect it to be perfect by any means. Sometimes, it seems to be a rapport builder and it definitely gives me only a glimpse of what people learning English must have to go through! :) (Jenn)