Bilingualism, Emotions, and Mental Health Support


Young people who attend international schools often speak more than one language. This might be the language of their parents and the language of the country they live in, the language of their school, or all of these. Young people may also speak the languages of several other places they have lived in during their childhood.

Language has a big effect on the way young people understand, experience, and express their emotions. When it comes to mental health support, languages are a tool to identify and express feelings through a process of healing and positive change.

For young people who speak multiple languages, the language they use in therapy may help them to access and describe experiences and emotions from different parts of their life. Sometimes, these experiences are best communicated without a spoken language at all, through non-verbal expression and creative activity.

This blog explores the connection between language and emotions and their role in therapy and recovery.

How Does Language Affect the Emotions We Experience?

Researchers generally agree that our emotions are not only shaped by our biology but by the social and cultural context in which they are experienced. Different cultures describe certain emotions differently and some cultures identify emotions that seem not to exist in the language and experience of other cultures.

Research shows that the language someone is speaking affects both the expression of an emotion and the experience of it. For example, in one study, people who spoke both Spanish and English expressed more emotional affect in Spanish and experienced different intensities of depression and anxiety. The study also suggested that these differences remained the same regardless of whether Spanish or English was their mother tongue.

For young bilingual people who attend therapy sessions, it might be more effective to hold sessions in one language than another – and not necessarily their mother tongue. Young people may find it easier to identify and express emotions in a certain language, a fundamental part of effective therapeutic treatment. Young people may want to explore therapy in different languages to find the language that works best for them.

How Does Language Affect Our Memory of Past Events?

When bilingual young people experience events, it’s usually in the context of the language that they and others around them are speaking during that experience. After the event, the memory of their experience is encoded in and connected to this language. For example, events experienced at school may be tied to the language of the school, while those experienced at home may be more connected to their mother tongue.

Research has found that when a bilingual person speaks about an event in the language they experienced, they give a richer and more elaborate account of the experience than if they describe it in another language. 

When therapy sessions relate to a particular event, it may be more helpful to speak in one language than another. This could be especially true when memories and emotions are suppressed, and therapy sessions aim to find and express them.

When a young person tries to access a painful or traumatic memory, it may be easier (or only possible) to do so in a language other than the one in which they experienced it. This may offer emotional and cognitive distance from the event that allows them to describe and remember the experience. On the other hand, some memories may only be fully accessible in the language in which it is encoded. 

Using a second language in therapy may also be helpful in other circumstances. For example, it may be easier to talk about embarrassing events or ones that are perceived as shameful in a language that offers more emotional distance from the events.

Therapy and Non-verbal Communication

Sometimes, emotions and memories can be hard to express verbally, whatever language is used. These emotions and memories may be too painful to describe in words or to access with the conscious part of the brain. 

Therapists may instead use art therapy or other creative therapies to facilitate non-verbal communication with young people. Creative therapy may help to bypass certain cognitive processes to access suppressed memories underneath. These memories may be expressed through drawing, music, dance, and other forms of creative expression.

Non-verbal therapy can also be an important tool for neurodiverse young people who find it difficult to identify and describe emotions verbally. For example, creative activities may help the development of emotional expression and social understanding among autistic young people.

The Wave Clinic: Building Life Advantage

The Wave Clinic offers transformative recovery programs for young people, supporting them to build fulfilling futures. 

Our residential programs take a whole-person approach to mental health care, combining specialist clinical care and state-of-the-art facilities with education, community responsibility, and an international gap year experience.

We believe that every young person deserves to access exceptional mental health care. We work with young people from all over the world with expert support for neurodiverse young people.

Mental health treatment shouldn’t be punitive or unpleasant. Our programs help young people to learn and grow without taking anything away. We’re here to help adolescents and young adults to shine.

If you’re interested in finding out more about our programs, get in touch today. At The Wave, we make a difference.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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