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  • Writer's pictureHenriette Johnsen

Shame … on language

When living in London, I studied and trained to become a psychotherapist. Doing so in my second language, I experienced frustration, isolation, and shame. Studying to become a therapist involved being in weekly therapy for three years and applying the psychological theories to myself for academic as well as personal developmental reasons; at times, it felt like being put through the wringer again and again. And again!

At the time, I had divorced and was living alone with my three young, teenage children. I touch on the challenges I experienced as a single parent in London in other blogposts; but for now, mention I'll mention that it involved a debilitating amount of stress, insomnia, and persistent anxiety. At times of feeling distressed, I struggled to be as articulate, authentic, and precise in expressing myself in English as in my mother tongue; and when bad, I experienced loss of fluency and regressed into being in-between languages. This made me feel intellectually inferior to others, disconnected in relationships, and I experienced a deep sense of shame.

Recently, I read an article written by an American Dane who has lived in Denmark for more than a decade and pleads for Danish people to stop swearing in English, at least when native English speakers are around. I totally agree with her argumentation; it was one of the first things my children noticed and objected against when we moved back to Denmark. Out and about, I often hear English swear words, but hardly ever amongst people who have been schooled in English; almost always by Danish children, teens, and adults incorporating them into their Danish.

Reading this article reminded me of a piece of qualitative research I carried out when I wrote my research dissertation for my counselling degree at Middlesex University: “Counsellors' experience of offering counselling in a language different to their first language”.

What I found was fascinating, and some of it may help explain – not excuse – the nonchalant attitude many Danes have towards swearing in English. Without getting into the nitty gritty of things, some researchers have found that since language acquired later in life is associated with higher levels of ego-functioning and limited accessibility to regressive, infantile emotions, one's second language can serve as a defense mechanism. Others have found that multilinguals, in particular those with high levels of emotional intelligence and self-awareness, in their second language, generally feel different and less in touch with infantile emotions; and some argued that symbols of language require construction of new selves when a second language is acquired.

Whilst my personal experience on some levels resembles the mentioned findings, I also experienced being better abled to express myself emotionally in my second language. I believe this due to having released a suppressed childhood trauma in hypnotherapy conducted in English as well as having had extensive talking therapy whilst living in England. This, in combination with having trained to become a therapist in England, means that English is my preferred emotional and therapeutic language. Interestingly, some researchers argued that depending on the proficiency of subsequent languages, multilingualism could work to the therapist’s advantage as many bilinguals have an increased ability for empathy, are better able to tolerate sitting with the unknown as well as bracketing own emotions.

My research, alongside my therapeutic work, and my own personal experiences suggest that when primarily functioning in a second language there is a sense of loss of self and lack of belonging suggesting that first language acquisition is linked to early attachment; and that a second language instigates a feeling of being in between, not only languages as I had experienced, but also in between cultures.

For many, this instigates feelings of shame, inadequacy, anxiety, and identity crisis. I’ve had clients who felt more comfortable and more in tune with themselves in their second language which resonates with me in the sense that I’m wondering if it is due to English being the first language in which I’ve been encouraged to express myself emotionally.

What has all this got to do with the above-mentioned article, then? Well, for some, expressing themselves in their second language doesn’t seem to be as charged as in their first language. Depending on one's age when learning a second language, most people won’t have had any infantile experiences of having been told off for using certain words; and as such, there’s no or little shame involved with swearing in a second language.

Now, that doesn’t excuse the at times inappropriate use of English Danes’ have, but it may well explain why many exhibit such careless and in many ways disrespectful attitude to the use of an otherwise beautiful and expressive language.

Therapeutically, for some, it may feel less daunting to work through issues in a second language simply because shame isn't as deeply routed. As such, it may be easier to talk about traumatic events from childhood and establish a new narrative around these in a foreign language. For others, it may mean that the potential lack of access to infantile emotions requires a longer period of therapy for healing to take place.

In my experience, it's more about trust and the alliance between therapist and client as well as the client's attachement style and their readiness for opening up. My own personale experience is one of profound healing from having had therapy in my second language; simply because the therapist was willing to be an enlightened witness to my struggles and to hold me through rough times.

All references to research can be documented upon email request.


First published September 2018, revised January 2024.



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