Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet)

Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland

Celebrating UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day: “Mother tongue – our emotional DNA”

by Beverley Costa

This blog post was updated on the 25th February 2015 to include links to the White Paper on linguistic and cultural heritage in child protection work, which was published today by Mothertongue and the Victoria Climbié Foundation UK. The White Paper can be accessed here.

International Mother Language Day is  celebrated on the 21st February 2015 and takes the theme of “Inclusion in and through education: Language counts”

Over the last year, GRAMNet has been delighted to develop a working relationship with the multi-ethnic counselling organisation Mothertongue. This first came about when Mothertongue were conducting some research and many of us responded to their excellent questionnaire on the experience of using different languages in therapeutic settings (thanks to all who took part after that call went out on our e-bulletin) We then began working conversations around the GRAMNet projects on Ethical Interpreting in Health Care Settings and the Large AHRC funded project: Researching Multilingually at the borders of language, the body, law and the state. Latterly, Mothertongue and Victoria Climbié Foundation UK invited some of us from Scotland to join them in a cross-party round-table on multilingualism in looked after children, held in the House of Commons last October. So it seemed entirely fitting, as a celebration of International Mother Language Day that we should invite Dr Beverley Costa of Mothertongue to share some of her work, research and professional experience with us – looking ahead to the publication of a White Paper in the Spring. There is much important practice here for the Scottish context and also for policy making in this area.


I grew up in a family where three languages were spoken, but not by everyone. My sister and I were the only two monolingual members of the family and not understanding what people were saying was our norm. I quickly got used to speaking English to people for whom English wasn’t their first language. The languages that we all spoke at home were an emotional currency – an indicator of who was in, who was out and essentially of who we were. And yes, we had a fourth language as well – a compound hybrid of English and bits of the other languages. This language only made sense within the four walls of our family home. So I suppose that fourth language was my mother tongue: the emotional DNA of our family.

Later in life I trained as a psychotherapist. In all of my training , I was left with a sense of dissatisfaction that the models of therapy presented failed to take into account people’s different worldviews and migration experiences and tended to pathologise non individual-centred ways of thinking and behaving. In my own therapy I realised that I couldn’t speak in my mother tongue. Who would understand it?

I set up Mothertongue multi-ethnic counselling service in 2000 to provide culturally and linguistically sensitive counselling for people from black and minority ethnic (BME) communities in their preferred languages. Some BME communities in the UK are over represented nationally in secondary services for mental health care and underrepresented in primary mental health services.


Photo: Beverley Costa for Mothertongue

Photo: Beverley Costa for Mothertongue


Mothertongue was established in order to attempt to address this gap. All Mothertongue’s professional qualified counsellors and psychotherapists are multilingual and we have a trained Mental Health Interpreting Service so that we are able to provide therapy in as many languages as possible. We know how important it is for people to be able to express their early emotional experiences in the languages in which they were experienced – to show and to share their emotional DNA.

At Mothertongue we try to give people a range of services and experiences which can meet their needs. These include 1:1 counselling, relationship counselling, groups like a knitting circle and ESOL classes and opportunities to volunteer with us. We are a BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) accredited service. We provide training, supervision and consultation to professionals and we are committed to increasing the body of knowledge in this area by research and widespread dissemination of learning.

As a therapy service we also feel we have a responsibility to promote social justice by helping clients, many of whom experience a deep sense of powerlessness in their lives, to rediscover and use their internal sense of authority in order to engage fully in, participate and contribute to their lives. For many, this means addressing issues of social justice and inequality of power outside the therapy room.


Photo: Beverley Costa for Mothertongue

Photo: Beverley Costa for Mothertongue


Through its client work Mothertongue has seen how families, with children in care, can be disempowered when their cultural and linguistic heritages are not considered. In order to raise awareness of these issues Mothertongue worked in partnership with the Victoria Climbié Foundation UK to co-host a Round Table event at the Houses of Parliament on October 14th 2014 which considered the question: Are we effectively considering the relevance of cultural and linguistic heritage within child protection work when making decisions in the best interest of the child? A White Paper on this issue is being published on February 25th 2015.

My profession of psychotherapy is known as the “talking cure” so how curious that multilingualism has been paid such scant attention in the world of counselling and psychotherapy!

Admittedly, recently there has been increasing interest in the role of language in therapy for multilingual patients and for multilingual therapists but it has attracted relatively little investigation. A therapist’s or a client’s bilingualism can both promote and/or adversely affect the therapeutic process. Mainstream psychotherapy tends to ignore these experiences, with adverse effects.

We therefore have conducted research across the disciplines of Applied Linguistics and Psychotherapy with Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele of Birkbeck College, University of London. This research aims to open up the discussion about multilingualism and therapy; to listen to and to convey the voice of the multilingual client; and to compare and contrast the views of multilingual clients with the views of multilingual therapists.

The themes of authentic and inauthentic identity have emerged strongly from our research with multilingual clients. Sujata Bhatt, in her poem (1997) ‘Search for My Tongue’, refers to the competing identities of her different languages and the way her mother tongue ‘ties the other tongue in knots’. Clients who participated in our research had similar experiences to share:

‘I feel like a huge part of me just doesn’t go to therapy with me. I have different personas with each language I speak so only speaking in English in therapy isn’t helpful… If I have to translate into English… it just isn’t the same for me.’

For Bhatt, her mother tongue – which for her represents both language and identity – is irrepressible, despite her attempts to suppress or ‘lose’ it:

‘Every time I think I’ve forgotten,
I think I’ve lost the mother tongue
It blossoms out of my mouth.’

One of our research participants conveys that same sense of the irrepressible:

“If in one of the languages I speak there is an expression like that, it does come to my lips whether I want it, or not. Then it’s up to me to let the lips share it, which I usually do.”

For the following participant, she could not even imagine an authentic communication with her mother in anything other than her mother tongue:

‘It [speaking in her mother tongue] was very beneficial for my getting in touch with how I feel and felt in the past about my mother with whom I only spoke my mother tongue, and so I needed to “speak” with her (in my mind) in that language. I could not begin to really feel what I would “say” to her unless I imagined the words in my native tongue.’


Photo: Beverley Costa for Mothertongue

Photo: Beverley Costa for Mothertongue


Our mother tongues hold so much information about who we are, how we feel, how we behave and how we think. That is why it is imperative that we attend to this in the “talking cure” of psychotherapeutic work. At Mothertongue multi-ethnic counselling service, we attempt to promote the importance of attending to clients’ mother tongues in the therapeutic encounter.

For International Mother Language Day on Saturday I am going to think about people’s mother tongues in all my encounters. It is a celebration of the richness that our different tongues contribute to the picture of who we are and the make –up of our unique individual identities that you can’t pick up from a fingerprint or a DNA swab.



Costa, B. & Dewaele, J.M. (2012) Psychotherapy across Languages: beliefs, attitudes and practices of monolingual and multilingual therapists with their multilingual patients, Language and Psychoanalysis: Available here.

Dewaele, J-M., Costa, B. (2013) Multilingual Clients’ Experience of Psychotherapy Language and Psychoanalysis, 2013, 2 (2), 31-50 : Available here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on February 17, 2015 by in Comment and tagged , , , .
%d bloggers like this: