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Lazy Language Learning with NLP

by Diana Beaver


As a linguist by trade, I was immediately grabbed by the language side of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (hereinafter referred to as NLP).  If you listen to what people are saying, you’ll discover exactly how they’re processing their thoughts.  Some of us think best in pictures (visual), some of us in sounds (auditory), and some of us like to process our thoughts through our bodies (kinaesthetic: remembering that the kinema showed moving pictures makes this piece of jargon  easy).  Visual people think very fast - they need to keep up with their pictures; while, at the other extreme, kinaesthetic people may take longer to give you an answer.  Have you ever asked a question of a teenager deep in his or her feelings, and got no response?  Next time, wait a bit and you’ll get an answer: it takes time to process thoughts through every muscle.

People in visual mode will say things like: Look!  If you see what I mean.  From my point of view.  Let’s get this into perspective.  Watch it!  Picture this.  Look here!  I can’t see the point.  See you soon.    They’re thinking in pictures, and imagining that you are doing the same.  They’re probably also talking very fast.

People in auditory mode will use phrases like:  Listen!  A little bird told me.  Music to my ears.  That rings a bell.  I hear what you’re saying.  A harmonious discussion.  That sounds about right.  A word in your ear.  Speak soon.  Sounds are their medium, and they think they are yours too.

People in kinaesthetic mode will probably talk more slowly, and they’ll say things like:  How do you feel about that?  I can’t grasp what he’s saying.  I’m comfortable with that.  My feeling is.   It was heart-warming/moving/touching.  Hold on!  He/she doesn’t turn me on.  The language of feelings needs to stir something in you.

Tastes and smells also come into language:  food for thought, a bitter pill to swallow; digesting a proposition,   sugaring the pill, a bitter argument;   and smells, in particular, demonstrate a deeper level of consciousness:  I smell a rat.  Follow your nose.   It stinks!   She was rather sniffy about it.  The French will tap their noses and say:  j’ai le flair when they’re suspicious about something.

Of course, we all switch from mode to mode; but most of us prefer one mode of processing over others.  For example, if you want to sell a car to a visual person, you’ll need to focus on the overall effect of the design: do they like the colour?  Do they like the visual layout of the dashboard.  If the person is auditory;  you’ll focus on sound of the engine (for a sports car lover), the quality of the stereo, the quiet inside the car, etc.  And, for the kinaesthetic person: the comfort, the accessiblity of the functions, the feel of the steering wheel, and so on.

The same applies to teaching/learning:  for example, people in kinaesthetic mode may not understand an explanation that paints a picture.  People in auditory mode may appear to be staring out of the window all through your lesson, when what they are actually doing is paying you the courtesy of turning their best ear towards you.  People who look up in the air when you ask them a question are searching for a picture in their mind’s eye.  People who look down towards the hand they write with are checking out new information with their feelings.  People who fidget in class are just trying to get the information into their muscles.

Things to do:  Students work in threes, and set up three sales pitches for, say, a house, a car or a holiday:  one to be visual, concentrating on the look of the item;  one to be auditory, concentrating on the sound;  and one to be kinaesthetic, concentrating on the feel.  They then present their pitches, in any order, to the rest of the class;  and, by the way each member chooses which they will buy, the students will discover what matters most to their classmates.  (NB  It’s not the quality of the sales pitch that gets the most votes, it’s the specificity of the language.)

Trying is very trying:    I believe that, the more we struggle and give ourselves a hard time, the less we learn;  whereas, the more we relax and have fun, the more we learn.  The Brits think the French are arrogant, because they won’t speak English;  whereas, the reason the French won’t speak English is because they are terrified of making mistakes.    The ability to make fools of ourselves is probably the greatest asset to language learning;  hence the value of games – we don’t have to take them seriously.

Distracting the conscious mind:  I learnt most of my French either on a horse, or round the bridge or dinner table.  We learn things much better when the conscious mind is distracted.   If you encourage your students to listen for visual, auditory and kinaesthetic language, and encourage them to use it back to their interlocutors, their conscious minds will be nicely distracted.  

Things to do:   Students trawl their dictionaries for visual, auditory and kinaesthetic phrases, and compare them to their translations into their native language;  for example, English is the only language I know that ‘looks forward’ to things;  this demonstrates a completely different mental process from French, which waits for them with impatience, or Spanish which delights itself in advance, or German which pleases itself towards it.  If this is done in pairs or threes, they will bring their different brains to the process, and come up with an excellent assortment; if they have different mother tongues, the results will be even more interesting.

Different thinking modes = different physiology.   Visual people will keep looking up at the pictures in their minds’ eye;  they will probably talk very fast – to keep up with their pictures; their voices may be fairly high pitched and they will breathe high in their chests;  they will probably sit fairly upright, and will walk with their feet parallel;  they will go upstairs on the balls of their feet.

Auditory people will look from side to side, to check the sounds in their minds’ ear;  they will talk at a reasonable pace;  their voices will be well modulated, and they will breathe with their rib cage.  They will walk with their feet slightly turned out.

Kinaesthetic people will look down towards the hand they write with, to check out their feelings;  they will talk much more slowly than visual people;  their voices will be lower, and they will breathe with their stomachs;  they will have a lower centre of gravity, and a more rounded physiology.  They will walk with their feet turned out,  and will go upstairs flat footed.

Things to do:  Take on the physiology of someone who is different from you, and discuss what changes in your world when you ‘become’ someone else for a bit.  See also Modelling, and A Mile in Your Moccasins, below.

Modelling:  If you also encourage students to model the physiology of the people they are talking to:  stand the way they’re standing or sit the way they’re sitting;  breathe when they breathe, and so on, they will find the rapport level deepens immediately.  And, if they do this with native speakers, they’ll discover what it’s like to have a different nationality.  They will discover that we have different identities for every language that we speak.  They will also discover that, because of the increased rapport, they will understand the foreign language at a much deeper level, because the connection is made heart to heart, rather than mind to mind.

Things to do: A mile in your moccasins.  Students find a native speaker of the language they want to learn, and go for a walk with (or behind) them.  For ten minutes, without speaking, the student walks behind or beside the native speaker, moving in exactly the same way:  stride for stride, swinging their arms the same way, holding their head the same way, stopping when they stop, looking at what they’re looking at, listening to what they’re listening to, and so on.  Sharing what they discover afterwards can be very revealing.

Language comes from deep within us, and is an inherent part of our culture.  Not only does culture affect language, but language affects the way we think.  Think about phrases that other people use that you wouldn’t use in a million years:  these phrases fit in with the way they think, and don’t fit in with the way that you think.  

Things to do: Find out where words come from.   Students select two spots on the ground (their mother tongue spot and their target language spot).  They choose a word and its translation; for example, if they’re English and learning French: ‘anger/colère’.   

In their mother tongue spot they say ‘anger’, and notice whereabouts in their body the word comes from.   They then move to the target language spot and say ‘colère’, and discover where that comes from.  If they feel like it, they can move back and forth from spot to spot and discover more differences;  and the corresponding differences in how they feel uttering the description of the same concept in different languages.

As an Irishwoman, I am lazy in that I like doing things the easy way.    This is a very brief insight into how NLP can help with language learning.  You can find out more from my NLP for LAZY LEARNING, which is back in print again (at last!) from mid-March 2002, published by Vega @ £8.99.  You can order it direct from my website www.dianabeaver.co.uk via Amazon.  The book has been translated into Swedish, Danish, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Slovene, Estonian, Hungarian, Chinese, Turkish, Polish and Russian.    If you want to make your whole life simpler, you might like my EASY BEING:  Making Life as Simple and as Much Fun as Possible.

Two favourite books for EFL students, which are wonderfully funny about the little ways of the English:  George Mikes:   HOW TO BE AN ALIEN and Pierre Daninos:   NOTEBOOKS OF MAJOR THOMPSON (which appears to be temporarily out of print).   The first is available from Amazon.co.uk, and the second, if you read French from Amazon.fr as LES CARNETS DU MAJOR THOMPSON.   Click here for the Useful Books link on my website, which will take you through to whichever Amazon you want.

There is also: Lynn, Jonathan and Jay, Anthony: YES, MINISTER and YES, PRIME MINISTER.  These are on video as well - so ideal for watching before looking at the text.  Your students can impress people by saying they are studying British Politics.   They are seriously funny, and very, very English. Click here to get yourself to Amazon. Then, using ‘all products’, type in both titles, and everything will come up on the same page.

For serious linguists, THE STRUCTURE OF MAGIC Vols I & II, by Richard Bandler and John Grinder (who created NLP), demonstrates how we seriously mess up our thinking by the language we use.    If you want lighter NLP and/or useful-for- learning reading, click here for my Useful Books page;  you’ll be able find out more about them from Amazon, and order them direct.

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