NLP and Lazy Language Learning

by Diana Beaver

As an Irishwoman, I like doing things the easy way, so here are some thoughts that I hope will make life simpler for language learners.

What is language for?

It is one of the many forms of communication; one of the ways in which we inform people about what is going on inside us - from 'I am hungry' to 'our joint account is empty, and I want to know how and why.'

Language expresses at the deepest level how we are experiencing the world at a given moment; and how we experience the world depends, to a large extent, upon our culture, and upbringing. Cultures have been evolving over hundreds of thousands of years, and languages are rich with the differences: the sounds, the rhythms, and the phraseology - to name but a few.

Try an experiment (you might like to try this with music first, if you haven't got any foreign language speakers available): close your eyes, relax deeply and just allow yourself to drop into the sound - letting go of everything else, so that your eye movements can follow the music. (When you are really relaxed, you will find yourself producing the rapid eye movements of dreams or trance.)

What happens? For example, how do your eye movements record high and low notes? How do they record the rhythm? And do you ever find them moving in advance before a note is played? What else do you notice? The movement of your eyes is recording the sounds in your brain - and we do this in different ways. So get your friends to do this experiment as well, and discover how they record the music. Is it the same way as you do? Or do they do something completely different?

Now you can try the experiment with different languages. What do you notice? What do your eyes do? How do you record the music of different languages in your brain?


As a linguist, I find comparing languages a fascinating hobby. For example, among European languages, there are profound differences about the concept of the future: English speakers 'look forward' to things; whereas French speakers 'wait for them with impatience'; German speakers 'please themselves at them'; while Spanish speakers 'delight themselves in advance'.

And it's not only the expressions, it's the physiology. On our way home from a party in France, my husband asked crossly why I always waved my hands about when I was speaking French (he thought it was a pretty un-British way to behave). I knew, at the deepest level that - if you tied my hands behind my back - I could not speak French; but I did not think that this was the sort of answer that a British Cavalry Officer would appreciate. So I treated the question as rhetorical.

With the physiology comes the question of whereabouts in your body a word comes from, and what it feels like, as you say it. One of my favourite revelations came from Pierre Emmanuel. He was standing in an English spot, and saying 'tiger'; then he moved to a French spot, and said 'tigre'. He pronounced that, for him, 'tiger' felt long and lean and supple, as a word - whereas 'tigre' was round and solid. (Try it out, and discover what it feels like for you.)

Then, suddenly, Pierre Emmanuel saw something in his mind's eye: the English advertisement for a tiger in your tank (I can't remember which brand of petrol it was), showed a long, lean, supple leaping tiger; whereas the French version showed a round, solid tiger's head. Fascinating!

So where is all this heading? One of NLP's most useful models (developed by Robert Dilts and the late Todd Epstein from the work of the late Gregory Bateson) is the logical levels of thinking. And one day I applied it to speaking foreign languages, by asking myself some questions:

Environment - Where and when do I communicate best in a foreign language? When I'm relaxed and comfortable, etc

Behaviour - What do I do? I copy speakers of that language, etc

Capability - How do I do that? By stepping into the other person's shoes and pretending to be them, etc

Beliefs - Why?

Identity - Who?

It was at the Beliefs level that I realised that, when I was being French, I had a completely different belief system. So I created a German spot, and discovered yet another belief system. Then came the glimpse of the blinding obvious: I had three different identities! And maybe the reason that some people are nervous about getting totally involved in learning another language is because they are terrified of losing their identities - unaware that they would, in fact, enrich them.

Let's go back to the beginning for ourselves, with some thoughts about how we learned our mother tongue.

  • we needed to communicate in order to survive
  • we concentrated on the message, rather than the language
  • we copied other members of our family who were communicating successfully
  • our strategy was trial and error - either things worked, or they didn't
  • our efforts were greeted with pride and joy by our devoted families
  • we were in a safe environment
  • people didn't keep correcting our grammar
  • we all have an innate knowledge of how language works
  • we weren't made to learn irregular verbs before being allowed to communicate
  • we were given the freedom to learn in our own way

Language is about concepts and ideas - it's not about the use of the subjunctive.

Let go! Have fun! Be silly! And, if you find this too much of a good thing, think of something else to do in that language, so that your conscious mind is distracted and too busy to give you a hard time. I learned most of my French on a horse or round a bridge table.

Communication is what it's all about. Everything else is irrelevant.

TEFL.net ESL Reviews & Articles© Diana Beaver 1999