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What Are We Missing? How Language Impacts Trauma Narratives


The potential for the development of psychopathology in aolescent refugees and asylees is high due to the trauma inherent in their experience. Yet, psychopathology rooted in trauma has proven amenable to treatment. Nonetheless, as most clinicians are monolingual, the language difference between clinician and client may be a barrier of desensitization and processing typically characteristic of trauma therapy. Thus, this study aimed to describe qualitative differences in speech production among native and non-native narratives using Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) processing software (Pennebaker et al. 2015) to understand if the current best practice will function similarly in these populations. We compared 10 adolescent immigrants (50% male) who narrated events that provoked their migration to the U.S. in their second language (L2; i.e., English) to 10 age- and gender-matched adolescents narrating in their first language (L1; i.e., Spanish). Results revealed L1 narratives were significantly higher in their use of/talk about anger, cognitive processes, discrepancy, tentativeness, perceptual processes, ingestion, relativity, time, work, and home. L2 narratives were higher in their use of/talk about positive emotions, death, causation, health, motion, space, and fillers. Findings have implications for the efficacy of treatments using discourse to ameliorate symptoms related to trauma in non-native languages.

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This research was supported in part by the Sam Houston State University Enhancement Research Grant Amanda Venta, Principal Investigator. Special thank you to members of the Youth and Family Studies Lab who helped make this project possible.

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Correspondence to Amanda Venta.

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On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.

Ethical Standards and Informed Consent

All procedures followed were in accordance with the ethical standards of the responsible committee on human experimentation [institutional and national] and with the Helsinki Declaration of 1975, as revised in 2000. Informed consent was obtained from all patients for being included in the study.

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Bailey, C., McIntyre, E., Arreola, A. et al. What Are We Missing? How Language Impacts Trauma Narratives. Journ Child Adol Trauma 13, 153–161 (2020).

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  • Spanish
  • Latinx
  • Refugee
  • Asylee
  • Trauma