It’s pretty challenging to get your point across when English is your second language. I remember when I moved to the states a few years ago and was placed in a situation that reminded me of a Romanian saying…I translated it in my head and laughing, said it out loud to my friends in English; I got a blank stare and silence in return. I felt awkward at the time because I thought it was funny…they thought it made no sense. It took me a while to realize that the nuances of my native tongue can’t really be translated in English just as the nuances of the English language can’t be translated into a different language. It was trial and error, I must say, but it in the end, it all made sense.
The reason why I am writing about languages, nuances, and misunderstandings is because I read an article the other day which reinforced my idea that sometimes, it’s best to stick to the known rather than venturing into the deep, foreign waters; it’s safer, and it won’t offend the people of other cultures. The article I am talking about referred to a US politician who –in an attempt to make a point- borrowed a very taboo expression (translated, of course) from a different language.
The expression used was “blood libel”, an expression so frowned upon and so offensive to the Jewish people that it caused quite the media stir. Well, I am not going to get into political polemics here, but I think it is important to have a clear idea of less than common terms, know their meaning, and know the context in which to use them...if one really must use them that is. Surely, this case made the newspapers because it is related to a very current event, but this does not mean that such instances don’t happen, don’t hurt feelings, and don’t affect those of different cultures.
As counselors, we have an ethical obligation- and I should hope we are not doing it out of obligation only or fear to get our license removed, but out of respect- to value and respect our clients’ culture –language included. Maybe I have a personal love affair with this multicultural sensitivity, but due to my experiences, I made it my mission to be very careful when I speak to someone coming from a different culture than my own. I can’t say I don’t make errors in judgment or that I don’t slip up –because I still do and am still learning- but I think it is critical to maintain awareness about how we use language, with whom, and in what context. Far too many times people were upset with a comment they saw as rude, and I saw as absolutely appropriate: just because it sounds ok in my native language, does not mean it will be well received by my American audience.
Now, I am student, a counselor in training; English is my second language and because of it, I decided it would only be fair to my clients to put that (ESL, accent, cultural traits) in my informed consent. My clients need to know about this and I feel they have the right to ask me questions and clarify whatever issue prior to allowing me into their lives; I will feel honored for being allowed to hear their story and honestly I believe there is little room for misunderstandings. How about you?
Diana C. Pitaru is a counselor-in-training, and a student at Walden University. Her theoretical interests are in Gestalt, Art, and Narrative therapy while focusing on multicultural issues and eating disorders.