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  • Writer's pictureHiromi Fujiwara, MA, MS, LMHCA

Finding The Words

Navigating the Language Barrier in Counseling

At the very core of what it means to be human, there is a neurobiological need for love, belonging, and connection. Because of this innate wiring, we all have a deep deep longing to be understood, and to understand others. Throughout the counseling process, it’s customary for your counselor to listen with undivided attention, follow your stories to explore meaning and help create connections, so that you can come to make sense of your own unique story and understand yourself more clearly. Many would assume that a shared language seems to be the primary tool for facilitating this understanding, but is this really true? What if you don’t speak English as your native language? What if you are not very good at expressing yourself? What if you lack the words to express your traumatic experience(s)? I know what it’s like to struggle with language and the way it feels to not understand and the pain of being misunderstood.

My Japanese-speaking friends often ask with amazement (or maybe it’s a little disbelief), “Hiromi, how can you do counseling in English?” They know that I grew up in Japan, immigrated to the U.S. as an adult, and that English is my second language. Even after living in America for over three decades, I’ve somehow been able to retain my charming Japanese accent, often mix up L's and R's (which my adult children like to make fun of), and continue to make occasional grammatical errors. My response to their question is simple. “Well, my clients don’t seem to mind the language barrier as much as I had expected, and I’ve grown to experience that counseling is much more than just verbal communication – it’s the human-to-human relationship that transcends language.”

I can say that now, but when I began my graduate work in counseling psychology, I was incredibly insecure about my language barrier, wishing I could speak like my native English-speaking colleagues who could nuance an expression of understanding and offer provocative questions for their clients. I didn’t think I could ever talk like my colleagues. I felt extremely inadequate and defeated. How would I ever be able to do this work?

It's amazing what happens when you have someone in your life reframe a perceived limitation into something with meaning and purpose. I was fortunate enough to have a thoughtful and experienced trainer leading our particular group of counseling students. After observing my interaction with a "practice client," my trainer Greg surprised me when he shared that my use of language was not a barrier but a gift! I asked, “How could this be??” Here is what I learned. The silence or pause while I search for the right word or expression gives clients space and time to process their thoughts. When I don’t quite understand what a client said, asking what they meant is an invitation to clarify their thoughts, often resulting in a capacity to go deeper in their thinking. My style and patient presence can actually slow down the nervous energy and create a grounding experience. I was comforted to discover that I don’t have to be someone else or a perfect English speaker. I get to be myself, know that I am enough, and trust that I have something meaningful to offer.

At the beginning of my internship year, I received more supportive words of wisdom from my beloved counseling professor, O’Donnell Day. Well aware of my insecurities of being an immigrant and how it could impact my therapeutic work, she said, “Hiromi, your clients may not be actual immigrants, but ‘psychically’ they are immigrants – they chronically feel ‘not normal’, inadequate, and alienated.” O’Donnell encouraged me to use my own immigrant experience to empathically connect, understand, and help my clients as they too navigate the difficult terrain of deep insecurities, profound loneliness, and the painful experience of not feeling accepted.

Without therapeutic mentors like these and all the others who have encouraged, equipped, and empowered me, I likely would have never come to embrace my unique style of counseling and use of language as a powerful gift. For those who are feeling inadequate, isolated, and alienated, you are not alone. I know what that feels like and have been there myself. If I’m completely honest, there are still moments when I struggle, but have learned not to stay there too long because I have grown to fight these lies by speaking and hearing the truth—I am enough. I now believe that my sensitivity, vulnerabilities, resilience, and resourcefulness born out of my own life challenges and adversities have provided me with a unique set of experiences (such as my own immigration, cross-cultural marriage, experiences of mental illness, trauma and tragedy) that are rich gifts to share with you as a therapist. Together, we will find the words through developing a human-to-human relationship that transcends difference and creates connection and a sense of belonging. And remember, you don’t have to do it alone. 一人でやる必要はありません。






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