Does Language Affect Counselling Within Diverse Cultures?

Counselling involves communicating to get insights into ourselves and the world around us. This places significant importance on the language we use to communicate.Our languages mark our identities as belonging to a linguistic and social group, with certain associated norms and values. Language is therefore not just associated with an objective way of conveying meaning but also carries social meaning, connotations, and a profound psychological significance for an individual member of a group.

Counselling in the context of diverse societies needs to consider not just ethnic and cultural factors but diversity issues such as t age, gender, ability, religion, language, social-economic status and issues, political factors, sexual orientation and the global environment.

What Is Language & Counselling?

Many definitions of language have been proposed.  In this context  in as far as we are concerned “language” refers to the standardised written and spoken language. Communication scholars divide the “language” of communication into three primary categories, namely: verbal, nonverbal, and written communication. Counselling on the other hand  involves the provision of professional assistance and guidance in resolving personal and/or psychological problems.

Why Do We Communicate?

The most important purpose of communication is to satisfy a personal or social need. These needs can generally be described as requirements of life, which include the following:

  • Physical needs – such as food and shelter
  • Psychological – contact with others (think of the movie Castaway)
  • Relationships – connections, permanent or transitory.
  • Sense of Self – gather insights into our selves
  • Information – societies cannot function without obtaining and sharing information
  • Decision making – unconscious and conscious decision through obtaining and sharing information that enables us to make informed decisions.
  • Persuasion – persuade others to think the way we think and or change an attitude or behaviour, as well as to have them understand what we are saying.

Communication is key to our existence as a species, yet we often take our ability to communicate for granted. We also do not always fully appreciate the sophisticated technologies that make much of the way we communicate possible.


How has Colonialism, Migration and Globalisation Impacted On Languages?

Colonialism has been violence to Indigenous people of colonised countries. It’s repel effects continues to  reverberate through out the world. English as a language occupies a hegemonic status together with other coloniser languages. In America for an example they are approximately 165 languages spoken , it is therefore misleading to describe the US as an English-speaking country.Migration and globalisation has also made the distribution of languages globally very complex. Multilingualism has become a natural way of life for millions of people across the world.

African has diverse indigenous languages belonging to difference language families. South Africa is an example of a country with diverse languages and cultures, currently elleven (11) official languages recognised. Its population largely belongs to the Bantu language family, which is further grouped according to language zone, dialect, idiolect etc. Afrikaans is also an indigenous African language though it’s not classified as a Bantu language.

Within multilingual societies certain languages will be dominant while others will be minority languages. Dominance is determined more by economic and political power than by the numbers of speakers, although the number of speakers may play a role.

English as a language of communication gained dominance  in Africa mainly due to these three factors:

  • Economic factor – by learning to speak in English one increased opportunities for themselves to participate in the economy
  • Prestige factor – probably changing now but English has been regarded as a prestige language mainly due to colonialism and apartheid governments that pushed for this agenda
  • The Structure of African languages itself. Most non-African languages speaking people often find it complex and challenging to learn to speak an African language due the nature of its structure. Learning languages as an adult is difficult and the structures of African languages does not make it any easier.

What Can Be Done To Improve Counselling Processes In Multilingual Societies?

If therapeutic alliance is key to effective therapeutic outcomes, mental health professionals need to work at building culturally sensitive working relationship with their clients.

To do so there need to develop multi-cultural competencies as part of core professional competencies.  These competencies for therapists, counsellors, psychologists among other mental professionals include:

  • Self-Awareness of personal assumptions and biases an ability to acknowledge that vulnerability and discomfort.
  • Creating a safe, non-judgmental, open stance to multilingualism,
  • Understanding that Psychology as a field is limited and suffers from embedded Western ideologies that do not always support the people it seeks to heal.
  • Acknowledge how language and its nuances thereof can limit the counselling processes and therapist-client relationship and where possible refer the client to where there can be supported in ways that suits their needs.
  • In instances were both client and professional speak English or the dominant language relatively well, if it is not the mother tongue of the client it should not be assumed it is their preferred language of communication.

The list is not exhaustive.


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