The many languages of love

Illustration of father and son with vortex of words
Sarah Pi/Staff

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My parents have never said the words “I love you,” but I have never questioned their love.

My parents express love in the way they ask about my academics. Their love is in the way my mom checks my face as soon as I turn on FaceTime to make sure my skin is clear, that I don’t look sick or tired. It’s in the way she prepares breakfast for me, no matter how early in the morning. It’s in the way she sends me packages from Japan with goodies that help me prepare a hearty obento for my 1-year-old son. 

But did I understand this love as a child? While my American friends received hugs, kisses and praise from their parents, I felt that I was always making a mess in my parents’ eyes. Did I understand this as a teenager? While my American friends talked to their parents about boys and their feelings, my parents drove me back and forth between Japanese school and basketball practices as I ate my snacks in the car, mostly in silence. Did I understand this as a college student? When my American friends took classes, such as art history, to explore their passions, I took statistics because my father told me it would help when I landed a job.

Parents’ love for their children is arguably universal. Yet the expression of love differs greatly around the world. It differs in the intensity of the emotions expressed. It differs in the type of emotions expressed. It differs in the use of verbal or nonverbal language. Such different cultural scripts about love sometimes create friction.

In the area of parent-child relationships, psychological research has documented that children of immigrants often perceive their parents to be less warm or loving than they would like, which is in contrast to their nonimmigrant peers. On the other hand, parents also reported difficulty communicating with their child post-migration. While any parent and child experience generational gaps, bicultural families in particular experience an additional layer: the cultural gap. Languages of love can be lost in translation, even within a single family.

In the domain of mental health, services are disproportionately underutilized by minorities. Psychotherapy largely relies on verbal communication as the medium of treatment. If you were raised to “talk about feelings” to help you feel better, such a format makes sense. As an adult, when you face hardships or dips in mood, you may be comforted by this familiar format of talking with a therapist to feel better. If your parents did not talk to you about feelings because of your gender, race or class, then would this still be the ideal medium of treatment? Asian adults are less likely to seek services and, when seeking services, may be more likely to be pathologized as “alexithymic,” meaning they have difficulty identifying and describing emotions. 

I study bilingualism, especially code-switching, as a tool for emotional communication. I view language broadly as a system of symbols that we use to organize the world and as a tool to share our worldviews with one another. Can parents and children speak a shared language of love that is meaningful to both? Can clinicians and patients speak the shared language of emotion that is helpful to a patient’s healing? In a world where we have learned many languages of love, how do we communicate beyond our own? Would such communication be a hybrid of two languages?

I hold my 1-year-old son, who is Japanese and American. Will he learn to say “I love you” the way my husband does? Will he learn to know that playful criticisms and high expectations are forms of love? Or will he speak a new hybrid language that his mother and father need to learn?

Research shows that when you learn a new language, you see the world differently. For example, if you habitually use different words for various shades of blue (as in Russian), then you are quicker to identify differences in shades of blue (than English speakers are). Perhaps, the more we can learn to speak the multiple languages of love, the more we can receive and give as a parent, as a child and beyond.

Aya Williams is a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at UC Berkeley, researching bilingualism and emotion in immigrant families.