What NLP has to tell us language teachers

Written by: Mario Rinvolucri, Pilgrims, UK

NLP, in this context, means Neuro-Linguistic-Programming which, incidentally has nothing to do with the new science of Neuro-Linguistics, the neurological view of language reception and production with which NLP is sometimes confused. If you look  NLP up on Google you will find many more entries about Natural Language Processing than about Neuro-Linguistic-Programming. Given that the price of taking a four  week NLP Practitioner Course is sky high, more than double to cost of most other therapy training courses, some people think NLP also means Never-Lower-Prices!

In this article I want to share with you four of the basic things that NLP has taught me:

Learning 1: Without adequate rapport I can do very little as a teacher

By “rapport” I  mean “relationship” or “harmonious being with”. NLP holds that without rapport you can do no useful psychological work with people and I would maintain that without  an adequate “ emotional bridge” between you and your students you can’t really teach them much.
If you tell a joke and most of your students laugh when you loose the the punchline you have established “humour rapport” with them.
If you tell the class a moving story and you can feel the students ( or most of them) hanging on your every word, then you have achieved “ narrative rapport” with them.
If you are explaining something difficult and you pause for a longish time to marshal your thoughts, and the students stay silent with expectant looks on their faces, then you have reached a state of “reflective rapport “ with them.
If you ask the students to stand up and do a physical exercise, and if the energy from your body is mirrored in their movements then you have got “physical rapport” with them

My Blagoevgrad plenary started with just such a physical exercise:
I asked the whole assembly to put their note books to one side, to stand up and to prepare to imitate my actions and echo my words.
The first part of the text, which I delivered in French, went roughly like this:

The leader looks intently at the ground in front of him, smiles and shows wonderment on his face
Beautiful……..ah….. so beautiful…….. Wow …..  what a beautiful flower

The leader leans forward, looking yet more closely….
What a beautiful colour! …… red…..crimson….what a marvellous red rose!……….

( These were the opening lines of the text)

What this little group-mirroring exercise did was to get me and the people in that hall into various degrees of linguistic and physical rapport. I say “varying degrees” because many people entered joyously into the activity and gave themselves to it, while others showed with their body language that they were far from sure of the value of what we were doing.

The group-mirroring exercise is a marvellous  pronunciation activity for any students from beginners to advanced  as it invites the students to “ surrender” to the leader’s sound system, rather than to cling onto their own way of saying the words. The exercise invites the student  to flow as the leader flows and to abandon their own , often partially mistaken, phonological system. This exercise comes from the work of Bernard Dufeu, and to find out more you could visit this website: www.psychodramturgie.de

I mentioned earlier that not all the people in that hall warmed to the “group-mirror” work.
While Bernard’s exercise allowed me to gain initial rapport with a lot of the audience, with a minority it had a neutral or negative effect. It was now time to reach out to this minority.

The second  exercise we did, and we worked in pairs, went like this:
Person A:  zero
Person B:  one hundred
Person A:  two
Person B:  ninety eight
Person A:  four
Person B    ninety six
Person A:  six
Person B:  ninety four

(The partners stopped when they reached fifty)

While the group mirroring exercise is linguistic, kinaesthetic and inter-personal in nature, this second one appeals to minds that love sequence, mathematical order and focusing inwards. It appeals to the logical-mathematical and intra-personal intelligences ( after Gardner) You will find  a gold mine of such simple intellectual-focusing exercises in A.R.Orage’s  book On love and psychological exercise, Sam Weisner, New York 1996.

Learning 2:  Observation is as central to NLP as it is to teaching
When a student speaks to me she is offering me a feast of  physiological information.
Her speech tempo will be slow, medium speed or fast.
She may speak from high is her voice box or from low in her voice box : the pitch of her voice will seriously colour what she is saying.
She may be a high volume, booming speaker or her voice may be nearer the whispering end of the loud/quiet spectrum.
Her speech may be accompanied by a few subtle gestures of the face or she may be a person who makes great use of her hands.

NLP has taught me how, if I want to, I can consciously observe voice features, that we normally take on board at a level below consciousness. This gives me much fuller information about the state of mind and body of the speaker.
To be skilled in such observation is not important in casual conversation but becomes useful when you are dealing professionally with a person who has a problem.

Visual observation is also central both to NLP and to teaching. By watching a person’s shoulders, chest and neck you can normally get an idea of how they are breathing: from the belly or from the upper part of the chest, slowly and calmly or in shallow, fast way.
A person’s breathing, together with their posture tell you a lot about their emotional state.
Your interlocutor’s  face  muscles give you finer awareness of how they are feeling as do colour changes to the cheeks and neck.

During my talk we did some work on recognizing what  a person’s eye moments tell you about their inner state.

It became clear by experimentation that when a person looks up to the right or to the left or when they stare away into the distance they are usually accessing internal pictures.

Sometimes a person, as they talk to you, is experiencing feelings, and when this happens their eyes will often be cast down to their right. You will often see this eye-movement  in photos of  politicians who have been given the push!

In conversation people sometimes talk to you and sometimes talk to themselves in your presence. When this happens, when they go into an internal dialogue which you can hear, they will typically be looking down to their left.

If you see a person’s eyes staying level, to the left or to the right, they are talking to you from their inner world of sound.

As is obvious, reading the sensory clues offered by a person’s eye movements allows you to understand the words they are saying to you more fully. Observing eye-movement patterns allows you to understand better the way they are processing information  and speaking to you about it.

Learning 3:  NLP  has opened my eyes to the sensory nature of much language
I have known since my school days that poets use language for marvellous sensory evocations. What NLP has shown me is that many of the simpler words in the language provoke a sensory reaction in the mind without a person consciously thinking about it.

Let me give you this word:

Elephant…………….

You may have done nothing of a sensory nature as you read the word
You may have got a mental image of an elephant
You may have heard an elephant trumpeting
You may have felt joy or fear that you associate with being near these large beasts
You may have breathed in the smells of an elephant house……

In Blagoevgrad  I asked people to write down these five headings:

I see          I hear           I feel through my body,        I taste        I smell

I then dictated non-abstract words  like   bread   I go for a walk    cheese
and asked them to put each word in the column corresponding to their first sensory representation of  it.

It is interesting that with a powerful word like mother nearly half the participants got a kinaesthetic representation, with maybe a quarter mentally seeing mother and maybe a fifth hearing her. A handful of  people associated the word with the realm of smell.

This exercise, which, incidentally, is a  good lower intermediate vocabulary revision technique, helps me understand another dimension of  the “word” in that many non-abstract words have a sensory dimension as well as  a colligation or grammatical aspect, a collocational pattern, and a particular kind of emotional prosody. ( see Michael Hoey’s Lexical Primings, Routledge, 2005)

What thrills me about this discovery is that the sensory representation  a listener or reader gets for a word is highly subjective and depends on their own inner  psycho-physiological structures. NLP has helped me broaden my understanding of what a word is.

Learning 4: What NLP has taught me about correction
I used to honestly think that correction was a student right and that my job as teacher was to correct in as equal a way as possible. As a young parent I used to think that I should treat each of my children “equally”.

What illusions! Each child perceives the world differently and has different needs so simplistic “democracy” and “equality” of parental offer  is way into the land of absurdity.
As a parent you soon shed these beautiful, well-motivated illusions.
NLP has helped me understand that the same is true of correction in the FL classroom.
There are at least three groups of students within a typical teenage or adult language class:

  • A minority  of students who internally resent any teacher-initiated correction. These students put up with correction from the teacher on the social level, but internally brush such correction aside. These students only want teacher help when they themselves ask for it.
  • A minority of students who appreciate the teacher as a subject expert and who really want a lot of teacher-initiated correction. These students  internalize correction  and really benefit from it.
  • A largish group of students who sometimes internally accept teacher-initiated correction and who at other times could do without it, depending on their mood.

At this point you may be thinking  “fine, theoretically, but what do I do tomorrow morning in my class in Varna, Plovdiv or Sofia?”
Let me give you a  practical answer. Suppose the students are doing a writing exercise in class, ask each person to write clearly on a piece of paper on their desk either:

Come when I call you
- Or -
Correct me when you want to

This simple teacher action gives the student a degree of autonomy and allows  them to decide how they want to be treated. It allows the very independent ones freedom to write without feeling bridled or threatened, and at the same time, it allows you to devote more time to the ones who feel happy with your expertise.

Conclusion:

The above four learnings from NLP are those that I shared with my participants at the The Blagoevgrad Conference. It is perhaps a little simplistic to say that these learnings arise uniquely from experience of using NLP. The first Learning, about the need to achieve empathy, is something that inchoately, all young teachers learn from their own students. My understanding of empathy derives too from  Jacob Moreno and psychodrama, from the work of  Marcia Karp, a New York therapist, from the application of psychodrama ideas to language teaching in the work of Willy Urbain and Bernard Dufeu and from many other sources.

Though NLP has helped me understand the nature of student self-correction in ways I never did before….some of my earliest thinking in this area was influenced by the work of Charles Curran and his intuitions about how a language learner moves  from a state of new born-like dependence through a sort of “adolescence” towards independence.

NLP, however,  is useful to language teachers in that it has magpied through earlier therapies, hypnotherapeutic approaches, cybernetics and other areas and come up with a new. if sprawling synthesis.

You could find out more about NLP by reading a general introductory book on it, such as Introducing  Neuro-Linguistic-Programming, Seymour and O’Connor.

You could get hold of a book of language teaching exercises inspired by NLP, like Unlocking Self-Expression through NLP, Baker and Rinvolucri, Delta 2005 and thus you can come into this kind of thinking as you watch your own and your students’ reactions.

In my introductory paragraphs I mentioned that NLP one month courses in the great cities of Europe are grimly expensive, so the best courses for you to take would be two week EU funded courses language teachers. Every summer major EFL training institutions in UK offer two courses to teach NLP to language teachers. You get on these courses free if the Bulgarian Agency awards you an EU scholarship. Good courses are on offer at Bell, NILE and my own place, Pilgrims. Naturally I hope you come to us and do not go to the excellent opposition!

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