Some of you may know that I am a fairly new immigrant to this country. I picked up English when I was quite young and although my English classes taught me well –in the sense that I was able to speak it with some fluency- it was not until I moved to the US that I started going through some stages I was unaware even existed. I came to this realization when one of my professors was doing a mock counseling exercise with another immigrant classmate. The “client” seemed unresponsive to some of those well known counseling skills but when our teacher asked her to share her feelings regarding a certain situation in her own language, things rapidly shifted. I must say that I did not speak nor understand her language but in spite of this drawback, I was able to feel her emotions, her love.
I felt my heart jump with every unintelligible word she was saying…goose bumps, and tears rolling down my cheeks. That’s when I realized it! Our native language is not just a tool that helps us communicate with one another; our native language –we’ve been raised and nurtured in- has a special meaning to each of us, a power we are unaware of. The words we use and can’t translate in English, old archaic sayings that have so many undertones yet when translated they make little sense. Saying “I love you” in my own language feels so much more real than saying it in any other language…it is incredibly amazing to notice just how powerful of an experience one might have, if allowed to express herself in her native tongue.
Above, I was mentioning some transitional stages I became aware of; here is what I came up with:
1.In the initial stage–immediately after moving to the US- I used to listen to a message, translate it in my mind in Romanian, then formulate my answer in Romanian, translate it in English and finally saying it out loud. Quite the process, right? This stage is marked by so much insecurity and fear of sounding “like a foreigner” or even uneducated. There are words I did not know so having to ask for an explanation when I stumbled upon one, made me even more self-conscious.
2.The second stage is one in which I still translated conversations back and forth in my head, but not as much and with more ease; and, although I came to terms that I must use this new language every day, I still had insecurities and fears about grammar use and new words.
3.During the third stage, I no longer translated messages. Everything flows naturally; I can listen and respond without taking that moment to process. I was a lot more confident in my abilities yet the question “What accent is that?” was still a bit bothersome.
4.The fourth stage is that of total acceptance. I am fully embracing the fluency of the English language and I am able to accept the beauty of my accent without making attempts to rid myself of it. My native language is one I speak on Sundays when I phone my family…and the rest is history.
Still, this seems incomplete. The following I will call a post-phase/stage because although the cycle is completed by the end of stage 4, something might trigger the idea that no matter how fluent one is in another language, something is still missing. This stage appears in special situations, such as a counseling session. The immigrant client attempts to explore her feelings with her counselor in the adopted language; regardless of issues of fluency, there is something artificial in the way words sound. A close look at that client’s nonverbal communication and the discrepancies between it and what is being said requires a counselor’s immediacy and presence. This is a crucial moment in enhancing the trust, building rapport at a deeper level, and allowing that client to fully be who she is and feel in a way that is familiar and comfortable to her –in her own language. “Tell me about your feelings of “X” in your language; it does not matter that I won’t understand what you are saying. You will, and that is all that counts”. This is all an immigrant client would need to let herself feel her emotions in a way that is meaningful to her: in her own language. Her native language is possibly the most powerful tool in helping her discover herself. Why not use it?
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.