Multilingualism and Psychoanalysis

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Multilingualism is the ability to understand and speak several languages. The general term covers plurilingualism (learning to speak several languages simultaneously) as well as polyglottism (learning other languages after one acquires one's mother tongue). It can be used as a generic term whenever there is no need to differentiate between the two situations. Its inital appearance in the psychoanalytic vocabulary is difficult to date.

The term was redefined in The Babel of the Unconscious (Amati Mehler et al., 1990). Prior to this there was little interest in the analytical significance of multilingualism, which is surprising given that the history of the psychoanalytic movement is itself crisscrossed by the migration and transmutation of languages since Freud's first patients came to see him in Vienna.

For a number of those patients (the "Wolf Man", Miss Lucy, even some analysts, like Princess Marie Bonaparte), German was not their mother tongue. Freud even analyzed some of his English-speaking patients in English, which at the end of his life became the language he used most frequently in his work. So, during the first years of the psychoanalytic movement, it was rare that the analyst and his patient shared a native language.

The multilingualism of the patient, just as the plurior monolingualism of the analyst, presented difficult questions about the analytic framework and analytic technique, as well as challenges to the conceptual apparatus of psychoanalysis. And although it may not be necessary to attribute a specific form of mental operation to multilingual individuals, the unique pathways multilingualism adds to the flow of the unconscious deserve further study.

Ever since On Aphasia (1891b), the question of the transition from one language to another had caught Freud's attention. He noted "the loss, through damage to the speech apparatus, of new languages acquired as super-associations, while the mother tongue is preserved" (p. 87). He observed the differences between word representations and thing representations, which later enabled him to define the factors that made the unconscious different from the preconscious-conscious system (1915e). The relation between word representation and thing representation defines a crucial substrate of the multilingual context.

Assuming that the multilingual speaker enriches the fabric of his preconscious with other word representations, what happens to their links with thing representations? Do both systems always refer to the same thing representation or does the thing representation also change? Answers differ. Some believe that thing representations remain the same, while others have introduced a deviation that refers to two distinct thing representations. According to the latter hypothesis, thing representations would still be part of the same associative complex, deviating because of a particular cathexis of the thing representation by the affective representative of the drivemost important according to Freud. For Erwin Stengel (1939), a new language establishes a new libidinal relationship with the word and the thing to which it refers.

The second language can come to the aid of a vacillating system of repression, be a sign of splitting or isolation, or even produce new symbolic richness. It is the subject's personal vicissitudes that will determine if the other language is used for resistance or allows for greater intrapsychic plasticity in the act of working-through.

Finally, multilingualism should not obscure the fact that the subject must perform an act of translation in every act of communication with others, as well as between his or her intrapsychic agencies.

Juan-Eduardo Tesone

See also: Aphasia; Linguistics and psychoanalysis.


Amati Mehler, Jacqueline, Argentieri, Simona, Canestri, Jorge. (1993). The Babel of the unconscious: Mother tongue and foreign tongues in the analytic dimension (Jill White-law-Cucco, Trans.). Madison, CT: International Universities Press.

Freud, Sigmund. (1891b [1953]). On aphasia; a critical study (E. Stengel, Trans.). New York: International Universities Press.

Stengel, Erwin. (1939). On learning a new language. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 20, 471-479.

Tesone, Juan-Eduardo. (1996). Multilingualism, word-presentations, thing-presentations and psychic reality. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 77, 871-881.

Urtubey, Luisa de. (1988). Dites tout ce qui vous passe par la tête, tout comme cela vous vient et dans la langue où cela vous vient. Revue française de psychanalyse, 52 (2), 463-472.