Maria Pilar Bratko is a bilingual (Spanish-English) MFT working with families, individuals, couples, and adolescents in private practice in Berkeley. She is also the clinical director of The Women’s Therapy Center. Maria is in her fifth year and currently on leave from her doctoral program at The Sanville Institute. Her professional interests lie in exploring how all aspects of being bilingual and bicultural affects an individual’s psychology.
My interest in taking a closer look at the clinical meaning of providing therapy in Spanish was aroused in response to a flooding experience that I encountered when I first began working with Spanish-speaking clients in 2007 in community mental health work. I was thrust into a full caseload of monolingual Spanish clients, where psychotherapy would be provided in homes, cafes, cars, and juvenile hall.
Now, Spanish is my language of origin. I was born in Cali, Colombia and my mother taught me to speak. She will turn eighty-two this Fall and these days our communication is a stew of specific Colombian clichés, Spanglish, heavily-accented English, and Spanish. Two important details to remember are that Spanish is the first language I learned while in Colombia, and my mother is the person who taught me to speak. To this day I always use Spanish with her and close family members. I point these facts out because it’s important to hold the developmental implications for how I first made sense of the world around me in Spanish. Consider the words that may exist in Spanish that don’t in English and vice versa. Does that mean that there is a linguistic proclivity for me to have some experiences and not others, just because words do or don’t exist for those experiences? And how does this show up in therapy with my Spanish-speaking clients?
While I just touched on a linguistic consideration, there are also some somatic aspects to providing therapy in a language other than English. For instance, the muscles in my tongue get tired from code switching between English and Spanish as I go through therapy sessions each day. Our tongue is comprised of eight muscles that, over time, will develop muscle memory when speaking the first acquired language. The degree of difference of the way each language uses these tongue muscles will present with that same degree of difficulty in pronunciation when code switching. I have also learned that not only does the tongue play a part but also lower facial muscles such as the jaw. This is excerpted from an Internet blog titled, “Do Different Languages Use Different Facial Muscles”: Your facial musculature includes everything from your jaw to your tongue. There are also other elements to consider when speaking such as where your tongue touches your teeth or which palate you are employing when shaping vowels in conjunction with your tongue…Also, you may have noticed that not only do your muscles have memory but you can also have breath memory.” While this writer was referring to breath memory in relation to singing, I posit that the same is true when code switching between languages. Now if you can imagine that this entire somatic experience is going on for the bilingual whether therapist or patient, it is useful to wonder how this difficulty detracts attention from the task at hand of sinking deeper into one’s feeling states. Bilinguals have to perform more elaborate and difficult encoding work in their second language, so they are often detached from emotion to some degree.
The agency where I worked, despite providing me with another native Spanish speaker for supervision, did not consider these additional difficulties for the bilingual therapist. Immersed in the work, I was flooded by feelings and associations that I hadn’t experienced with English-speaking clients. One association I had was of reaching towards a lost sense of wholeness that could possibly be found in my language of Spanish. Growing up I had made a very conscious and disciplined effort to retain this language inside of me and only now am coming to understand the importance of it. This work to retain my language of origin is driven by a fear that I will lose a part of my ‘self’, similar to the atrophy that can settle into an unused muscle, which implies that by losing my language of origin, I would be functioning with an inoperable part of my ‘self’. I suspect that one of the transferential feelings I have when I speak and hear Spanish is that of Winnecott’s infant state of ‘going on being’. Somewhere inside of me I imagined accessing a preverbal symbiotic state where the baby hears the familiar sound of Spanish swaddling the baby from all around. I feel the loss of the safety of my mother and my mother tongue. I imagine from a symbolic perspective, that when I hear Spanish there is an unconscious link to safety and familiarity, and subsequently a relaxing response whether or not the reality of the situation is safe or familiar. And what happened to my Spanish ‘self’ when I entered a country where I would speak Spanish only with my mother and sisters and would use English in the rest of my new world? Are my clients also feeling this sense of unfounded safety and comfort?
Bruner (1998) speaks to this point in his constructivist theory asserting that knowledge and reality are constructed through the social activity of the telling of experiences, through the sharing of stories and narratives. I wonder what happened to knowledge and reality for me as the reality I learned in Spanish became limited and lost while a new reality in English was created. One thing I learned about my new reality was that I would become a translator of many things for my mother, suddenly stepping into a caregiver role that I was far from prepared to take up. I can only imagine how this impacted our relationship. My mother’s new reality in the United States was that she would not understand nor be understood. This sense of being unable to understand or be understood became a permanent narrative for her, overriding pre-existing narratives of herself where in fact she was very capable. It seems that for my mother, what she lost in translation was a belief in her ability to learn a new language and be competent in it, despite the reality that she in fact did learn and understand English. An example of this is that after spending over 40 years in this country, my mother continues to speak with a heavy accent. This seems to be a symbolic representation that my mother’s process of acculturation is still in progress and I wonder if perhaps the idea of a complete acculturation, a finished struggle, is more fantasy than real possibility. In the foreword to his collection of essays, Letters of Transit, André Aciman (1997) says, “An accent is the telltale scar left by the unfinished struggle to acquire a new language. An accent marks the lag between two cultures, two languages, the space where you let go of one identity, invent another, and end up being more than one person though never quite two.” I wonder if this is my mother’s experience my experience, and my patients’ experiences.
There is so much more yet to explore about the shifting identities and realities take shape within the code-switching phenomenon for a bilingual therapist. I hope that sharing these associations can help inform ways to better understand what is entailed in providing therapy for bilinguals.