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  • Writer's pictureMiki Goerdt

Working with clients whose first language is not English

I am bilingual---Japanese is my first language, and English is another language I use. In my role as a therapist and a clinical supervisor, I notice that the therapy profession doesn't talk much about how to work with bilingual individuals. In our trainings, we often talk about the need of translators if a client is not fluent in the language that the therapist understands. But how do we conceptualize and understand the experiences of individuals who speak English and additional languages? How are we making space for these individuals to be able to show up authentically, including all of their languages?


As a therapist and a bilingual individual, I have some requests for fellow therapists:


1) When clients are not sure how to say something in English, ask them to go ahead and say it in their primary language. So often bilingual clients feel the internal pressure to translate what they want to say from their primary language to English FOR THE THERAPIST. Relieve the pressure to translate for you. Ask them to say it in their language and then ask how it feels to say it.--What emotions come with what they just said in the language? If it is an emotion that they are trying to describe but can’t do it in English, ask them to draw it on a piece of paper.


2) If your clients’ primary language is not English, understand that their primary languages resonate differently than English in their bodies.When you expect or ask them to speak only in English because you the therapist won’t understand their languages, you are asking them to leave a big part of their somatic experiences and the contextual experiences that come with their primary languages. You’re missing a lot.


3) Don’t respond to your bilingual client’s expression in their language with phrases such as “That is so beautiful” or “I love the way your language sounds.” They are coming to you to get therapy, and you are not sitting at the front seat of a multicultural show.


A culturally responsive therapist understands that clients’ primary language is a core part of their identity. Just because your bilingual clients speak enough English to communicate with you, it doesn't mean you conduct sessions in English only. If you say you practice a non-judgemental attitude and you welcome clients as they are, you would be welcoming bilingual individuals’ expressions in another language in your therapy room.



The image describes the feeling named “moya-moya もやもや”

—a feeling word that my Japanese clients often use, and something that can’t be fully translated in English.

A client's artwork helps me understand my client's experiences better.



Are you committed to practice therapy from culturally responsive, anti-oppresive perspectives?

I invite you to join the clinical supervision group.



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