Degree In Sight

Looking to broaden your skills--and your marketability-as a psychologist? Consider learning a second or even third language.

Research psychologists are increasingly working in teams that cross countries and languages. And practitioners--and their clients--can benefit as well: Research shows that therapy conducted in a person's native language is more effective than using translators or conversing in non-native languages. And, as the number of non-English speaking immigrants continues to grow, psychologists must find ways to serve this burgeoning population. Almost 20 percent of American residents speak a language other than English, according to U.S. Census Bureau's 2005 American Community Survey, up almost 3 percent from 2000 Census data.

"Because we can no longer expect that our professional practice or our research is going to be focused specifically on English-speaking communities, we need to be able to take the extra step to learn another language," says National Latina/o Psychological Association President Joseph M. Cervantes, PhD. The idea of learning a new language while navigating the intense demands of graduate school can be daunting, but experts agree that even if you don't become fluent, any bit you acquire--along with its attendant knowledge about a different culture--can help you become a more effective and empathetic psychologist.

"When psychologists begin to learn a new language, it can sensitize them to the struggle their patients go through as they assimilate to a new culture," says Christina Gomez, a third-year counseling psychology student at West Virginia University. "You develop a sense of humbleness in terms of relating to your patient."

Benefits of bilingualism

When Elham Zarrabian, a psychology instructor at Santa Monica College, counsels her Iranian clients in Farsi, she notices that they automatically relax.

"You connect with them on a deeper level," agrees Josefina Irigoyen, a bilingual, fourth-year clinical psychology graduate student at Antioch University New England. "I am able to establish a therapeutic relationship much more quickly and with more ease."

Her bilingual clients also tend to switch from English to Spanish when the conversation turns to a really important topic or something more emotional, she says.

Cognitive psychologists are still debating how language and memory intertwine, but researchers such as Jeanette Altarriba, PhD, a psychology professor at the University at Albany of the State University of New York, have found evidence to suggest that memories of events are more accurate and detailed if told in the language spoken at the time the event occurred.

In other research, Altarriba and colleagues studied how psychologists benefit from language-switching during therapy. In an as-yet-unpublished qualitative study of nine English/Spanish bilingual psychologists, the therapists used dichos, or idiomatic Spanish expressions that describe moral values, social behaviors and attitudes, to promote disclosure and help clients gain insight during therapy.

"Use language strategically, as a tool to help gain information or make the interview process easier or more meaningful," she advises.

For example, using more than one language can make complex psychological terms and theories-which often don't have direct translations--easier for a therapist to explain.

Talking points

Acquiring a new language doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing proposition, notes Altarriba. She suggests that students learn a few foreign phrases, and supplement them with a broader education about a particular culture's views on, for example, mental health, religion, family values and gender roles.

"Any little bit of any language you can learn will be an asset," Irigoyen says. "Just being able to say 'hello' or 'thank you' in that person's native language will mean so much to your client."

Students who are looking for a deeper understanding of a new language may want to try an immersion program, such as the Costa Rica Professional Preparation Program (, through which 25 graduate students and practitioners in clinical, counseling and school psychology spend 10 weeks in San José to learn and exclusively speak Spanish while exploring Hispanic culture and local psychological practices.

"It's a sink-or-swim-type situation, but it's done in the context of support, so people learn very quickly," says Cervantes.

Other psychologists seek language skills from private tutors, as did Robert J. Sternberg, PhD, dean of the arts and sciences at Tufts University and APA's 2003 president. At age 30, Sternberg was inspired to learn Spanish by his desire to work with Venezuelan college students, but he couldn't take a class because of his erratic travel schedule. So, he hired a Spanish-speaking graduate student to tutor him. It took about six years for Sternberg to grow comfortable speaking Spanish, but he's now fluent and has moved on to learning German.

His advice to busy graduate students?

"The greatest challenge is believing that you can do it," he says. "Look at it in really little bits at a time, as in a couple of pages of a language book a day, and if you multiply that, it's like compounding interest."

Cervantes also encourages students to advocate for language-preparation as part of their graduate programs. Students can take the matter up directly with training directors and faculty, or contact groups such as the National Latina/o Psychological Association to ask for support.

"Failure of faculty or a department to respond to this reality really suggests an ethical violation," he says.

“Any little bit of any language you can learn will be an asset.”

Josefina Irigoyen
Antioch University New England