Celebrating UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day

“Mother tongue – our emotional DNA”

by Beverley Costa

This is an excerpt of a post first published on the GRAMNet blog, FEBRUARY 17, 2015. For full text please visit  gramnet.wordpress.com

International Mother Language Day is celebrated on the 21st February 2015 and takes the theme of “Inclusion in and through education: Language counts” 

Over the last year, GRAMNet has been delighted to develop a working relationship with the multi-ethnic counselling organisation Mothertongue, the GRAMNet projects on Ethical Interpreting in Health Care Settings and the Large AHRC funded project: Researching Multilingually at the borders of language, the body, law and the state.  Latterly, Mothertongue and Victoria Climbié Foundation UK invited some of us from Scotland to join them in a cross-party round-table on multilingualism in looked after children, held in the House of Commons last October (2014).  So it seemed entirely fitting, as a celebration of International Mother Language Day that we should invite Dr Beverley Costa of Mothertongue to share some of her work, research and professional experience with us – looking ahead to the publication of a White Paper in the Spring*.  There is much important practice here for the Scottish context and also for policy making in this area.

*This blog post was updated on the 25th February 2015 to include links to the White Paper on linguistic and cultural heritage in child protection work, published by Mothertongue and the Victoria Climbié Foundation UK. The White Paper can be accessed here.

I grew up in a family where three languages were spoken, but not by everyone.  My sister and I were the only two monolingual members of the family and not understanding what people were saying was our norm.  I quickly got used to speaking English to people for whom English wasn’t their first language.  The languages that we all spoke at home were an emotional currency – an indicator of who was in, who was out and essentially of who we were.  And yes, we had a fourth language as well – a compound hybrid of English and bits of the other languages.  This language only made sense within the four walls of our family home.  So I suppose that fourth language was my mother tongue: the emotional DNA of our family.

Later in life I trained as a psychotherapist.  In all of my training , I was left with a sense of dissatisfaction that the models of therapy presented failed to take into account people’s different worldviews and migration experiences and tended to pathologise non individual-centred ways of thinking and behaving.  In my own therapy I realised that I couldn’t speak in my mother tongue.  Who would understand it?

I set up Mothertongue multi-ethnic counselling service in 2000 to provide culturally and linguistically sensitive counselling for people from black and minority ethnic (BME) communities in their preferred languages.  Some BME communities in the UK are over represented nationally in secondary services for mental health care and underrepresented in primary mental health services.

Mothertongue was established in order to attempt to address this gap.  All Mothertongue’s professional qualified counsellors and psychotherapists are multilingual and we have a trained Mental Health Interpreting Service so that we are able to provide therapy in as many languages as possible.  We know how important it is for people to be able to express their early emotional experiences in the languages in which they were experienced – to show and to share their emotional DNA…

For the full blog post please click here

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