by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on October 12, 2011

I have always been interested in language, and how the ability to speak many of them, to think and dream in them, impacts who and how we are. When, and how we learn a second or third or fourth language influences not only how we communicate with others, it also shapes the particular content and material that we select as well as our experience of ourselves. Language and the particular symbols it assigns to things (thoughts, objects, feelings, etc.) lends specific meaning to our experiences. Or at the very least, it tries to capture our experience in words so that we may find its meaning and share it with others.

The readers of my posts know that I do not believe that language and the spoken word can capture the complexities of human experience. So perhaps it will not come as a surprise that I think that multilingual people have access to more ways to express and communicate their experience, as well as to hide from it. This can be tricky, as each language will likely capture some but not all of the nuances of human experience, some will necessarily be lost. Or remain hidden. With language(s) we are likely to be lost in the translation. And perhaps found, anew, in a different way.

Language always involves an element of translation: from our felt experience to our perceptions, to our thoughts, to the words and what we say, or from the thoughts to the action and what we do. The particular language that we use, whether it be English or Italian or Spanish or sign language or the language of art in all its expressive forms (poetry, music, dance, painting, sculpture) contextualizes our experience, translating it and its meaning in a particular way. Our very own translation. Thus, parts of our selves are lost in the process of translation, while others come to life.

As a psychoanalyst I think that different languages (spoken and otherwise) access different self-states and their concomitant experience. Some self-states may be language bound. This has been most evident to me in the area of affect and emotion. Think of it, how many different ways do you experience and express emotion? The language of art is often useful here, perhaps because it reaches beyond words, it seems to access felt experience easily for all of us.

In my clinical work with patients who speak more than one language, I have found that often their emotions and early history reside within their ‘mother tongue’ and lose something of its impact when translated into another language. When it is spoken (or drawn, or hummed, or enacted) in the language in which it initially occurred and was registered in, it accesses more of its emotional meaning and resonance. Even if I do not speak or know the particular language that my patient’s experience is registered in, I always ask him or her to say it (or do it) as it comes to them anyway, in its original language. I manage to “get it” that way . Much the same way that telling you about a dance performance or a piece of music cannot possibly do it justice only as a verbal representation. You have to experience it. Artists have always intuited and known that their particular art form is a language of its own, one that evokes meaning through its aesthetic. As the observers and audience of the artists’ language we respond to the movement of their particular aesthetic and what it touches in us.

Language, as the symbolic container of meaning and experience, shifts (our) experience according to its structural limitations and the kind of experience it is attempting to define and communicate. It loses and gains elements of the original in the translation. Whether you speak more than one language, it turns out, we are all involved in the process of translation.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Martha Crawford, LCSW October 13, 2011 at 12:42 PM

I think this is very true – first languages are also sometimes the only portal to pre-verbal experience and affect as well – again, translated, abridged and distorted.
All the more difficult for people who have “lost” their first language and the language of their childhood caretakers through assimilation, adoption, etc.
A thoughtful, thought-provoking piece.
Martha Crawford


Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. October 13, 2011 at 6:59 PM

You are so right! On both accounts. Sometimes first languages are the only entry to early experience and affect, and for those who have lost their first language through life circumstances the work of translation may be cumbersome and difficult.


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