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(For reasons of readability, the male form is used with personal names, however the female form is also always intended.)

The mother tongue as language of emotions

Author: Jorge Luis Rios


A transcultural, psychoanalytic essay for migrants.

The root of my interest in transcultural psychoanalysis is probably anchored in my own biography, and this interest grew while working with patients at the Sigmund Freud University’s outpatient clinic, and later in my own private practice. During my time at the outpatient clinic, I observed the phenomenon that many patients longed for psychotherapy in their native language, despite being proficient in German. This phenomenon took on a new dimension when individual patients preferred psychotherapy in German, although they were not proficient.

I tried to understand the native language’s phenomenological dynamics, both as a language of choice and expression of resistance in psychoanalytic psychotherapy. In this essay, I would like to address the phenomenon of the mother tongue in the therapeutic context, and thereby recount my previous experiences, both as budding psychoanalyst an analysand. This approach specifically addresses patients with a migration background, and intercultural contexts.

“The mother tongue as the language of emotions"

Freud (1905c) considered the primary language or first language as the language of the id. This primary language - which I will refer to as the mother tongue [The mother tongue as language spoken by the child’s first attachment figure, and which the child learns and identifies with first] from now on - is closely related to the child´s early experiences, because these experiences were embedded in the earliest emotional, cognitive, and sensomotoric development of the child. In other words, if the mother tongue is closely tied to early experiences, one could – analytically- say that choosing a word in a language, consciously or unconsciously, is determined by emotions.

Therefore, the internalization of a language and its symbolic dimension depends on the willingness of the ego and the satisfaction of the id. The words that we carry within us are soaked with the individual’s emotional and cognitive experiences in the context of their meaning (see Bouville 2018).

From my point of view, the emotional significance is the reason why many patients tell an unspoken, untold story only in their native language. Traumatic experiences - such as persecution, torture and abuse - are remembered again and can be expressed through the emotionality of the native language, which creates a yearning for the primary love objects. Depending on the individual history and internalization of the reference objects, the emotionality of the mother tongue is characterized differently.

In my opinion, that´s why many patients don’t choose their native language for therapy. The mother tongue can be marked by both love and hatred. The word itself is the expression, consciously or unconsciously, of a chain of subjective meanings or - à la Lacan – signifiers, in which a message is expressed, obscured or disappears.

A language learned later in life is linked to the more mature stages of development. Our relationship with this language is shaped from the outset by the superego. For some patients, however, the superego’s bond with the first language is so prohibitive that the "Id drives" are only accessible in the superego’s tolerant atmosphere of the second language (see Krapf 1955).

One of my female patients had great difficulty perceiving or expressing her emotions. The relationship with her family and country of origin was full of restrictions and violence. She said that she did not feel anything, and hence could not talk about her feelings. For many months, we worked on her ability to mentalize, until  she showed me her self-written poems one day. To my surprise, all the poems were written in English.

Her poems were both beautiful and expressed extreme emotionality. Her fears, pain, illusions, feelings of love and hate were very present, one could feel them. The patient was still unable to express her feelings - in the therapeutic process  - yet she learned to express her feelings through poetry. To this day, her poems have become her therapy’s protagonists that can be used to promote her ability to mentalize, merely the first step towards the verbalisation of her emotions through language. This patient has learned to express anger and joy during therapy. Now she uses words in her mother tongue, which is Arabic, to express her emotions.

The new languages allow a separation from the emotional occupation in the mother tongue. The new language seems to be freed from the restraints of the mother tongue. The emotional access to these new words should take place through the analytic process. What was already repressed, seems to disappear even more, but is only temporarily buried deeper by the new language. In his reflections on the relationship between mother tongue, foreign language and averted, Greenson assumes that both languages are clearly separated, and that each language is bound to specific affects or psychological mechanisms. The foreign language helps to "displace incestuous memories and feelings that would be more accessible in the mother tongue" (Greenson, 1982:20).

Another classic example of the one mentioned above is the case of Anna O., who temporarily only spoke English. Freud interpreted the banishment of the German mother tongue as a symptom of repressed sexual desires.

Migration and language

Migrants experience a massive loss of object relations that can trigger a psychological crisis. One has to imagine that - from one day to the next - the familiar such as  the language, culture and environment, disappears or changed – hence, the new reality is alien.

The Argentinian psychoanalyst Cesar Garza Guerrero (1974) describes the migration crisis as "culture shock". In his representative model of the migration crisis, he leans on the grieving process. If there is a loss of all or many objects, to which the libido is bound, the identity of the subject may be at risk. The grieving process leads to the redesign of the inner object relations under the influence of the new society and the self-concept based on new experiences in the new environment. If this grieving process is not managed, it can lead to depression, psychosomatic disorders, identity crises and paranoid reactions. The migrants are longing for "clarity" about present ideas and transitions. It is crucial for people to think, speak and fantasize, so that the inner pictures emerge, which help to clarify what one wants and can do (Kronsteiner 2002).

When meeting migrants, one learns that learning the local language lays the foundation for a possible integration. Less well-known is the influence that the conscious and, above all, the unconscious’ readiness to learn the new language has, and how it shapes the experience. There is no objective perception of words. They are always perceived with the traces of memory that accompany them. In the case of the German language, the migrants’ German language skills are not correlated with the length of their stay, but with the quality of relations with the recipient.

The creation of an analytic intersubjective area

"What is said or not said, what happens or does not happen, everything is integrated into an intersubjective system" (quoted in Stolorow 1996, p.5).

From an intersubjective perspective, relationship and relatedness between two subjects are at the forefront of observation, experience, and reflection. The patient’s role as the subject of treatment by an outside therapist is replaced by the analytic couple, which creates a new reality in the encounter. From this point of view, the patient’s development during the analysis is the result of an encounter, in which both participants, the analysand and the analyst, influence and change one another. Thus, the patient´s intrapsychic development is a result of the encounter that cannot be achieved without the inclusion of the analyst (see Ermann 2014).

To me, it is very important to emphasize how essential the creation of an intersubjective field in the analytic process is, in which the encounter of two cultures and two subjects is realized. This new field enables intercultural exchange, in which the analyst develops an intercultural curiosity about the cultural foundations. In the encounter, the meaning of "mother tongue" or the "foreign language" is one that is discovered by both participants.

It is not just about language, but also about the unconscious historical dimension of the patient and, in a way, about that of the analyst. In addition, to communicate the intercultural exchange required, the analyst either has either experienced the culture in the corresponding native language, or develops a curiosity for the discovery of a new culture within the analytic process.

In such an intersubjective field that promotes intercultural exchange, both analyst and analysand navigate in unfamiliar territory, which nourishes curiosity and enriches the encounter between two cultures and two subjects.


- BOUVILLE, V. (2018): Zur Bedeutng der Wahl einer Sprache. Psyche – Z Psychoanal 72, 459-462.
- ERMANN, M. (2014): Der Andere in der Psychoanalyse. Die intersubjektive Wende. W. Kohlhammer GmbH, Stuttgart.
- FREUD, S. (1905c): Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewussten. GW 6.
- GARZA GUERRERO, C. (1974): Culture Shock. It’s Mourning and the Vicissitudes of Identity. In: Journal of the American Psychoanalytical Association Bd. 22(1).
- GREENSON, R. R. (1982): Die Muttersprache und die Mutter. In: Ders.: Psychoanalytische Erkundungen. Übers. H. Weller. Sttutgart (Klett-Cotta), 13-24.
- KRAPF, E. E. (1955): Über die Sprachwahl in der Psychoanalyse von Polyglotten. Psyche – Z Psychoanal 9, 401-413.
- KRONSTEINER, R. (2002): Migration und Exil: soziokulturelle Bindungen und Brüche – Übergänge in ethnotherapeutischen Beziehungen. In: MEHTA, G./RÜCKERT; K.(Hg.): Bindungen/ Brüche/ Übergänge. Beziehungen und ihre Veränderungen in unterschiedlichen Lebensphasen,. Wien.
- STOLOROW RD, BRANDCHAFT B, ATWOOD GE (1987): Psychoanalytische Behandlung. Fischer, Frankfurt a.M. 1996.