Volume VI - 2001

Neuro-Linguistic Programming: A Basis for Language Learning
by Marion H. Love

Dr. Marion H. Love, who holds a Ph.D. in Theatre Arts from The Ohio State University, has had additional training in linguistics, dramatic literature, and the role of the creative arts in adult learning from Duke University (USA) and the University of Cambridge (United Kingdom). She is director of more than sixty theatrical productions and is co-author of the EFL textbook America the Beautiful, published in Moscow by Kitaigorodskaya Press in 1998.

Editor's Note: Neuro-Linguistic Programming or "NLP" seems to be a general approach to life, including the study and acquisition of language. During the past ten years, the wide-ranging philosophy has been quite influential in English as a second language as taught in England and in Europe in general. Yet NLP remains relatively unknown in the United States. It is to help bridge the Trans-Atlantic gap that this Journal presents the following article. Although some of the emphases in NLP do have implications for the imagination and vice- versa, we do not wish to either endorse or disagree with the contents. We will point out, however, that there seems little or no direct relationship between "Neuro-Linguistic" as referred to in NLP and "neurolinguistics" as it is studied in departments of linguistics and/or psychology in the USA.

"NLP is an attitude ...[of]...insatiable curiosity about human beings with a methodology that leaves behind it a trail of techniques."
(Bandler and Grinder, l979)

      The presuppositions of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) are not a philosophy or a credo or a set of rules and regulations. Rather, they are assumptions upon which individuals base future actions and plan for meaningful learning experiences. For example, a teacher who instructs students to exchange homework with each other is presupposing that everyone has done the work. An NLP presupposition is an assumption about human behavior, experience, communication or potential that influences behavior. For many people, presuppositions are firmly held beliefs that engage the emotions as well as affect behavior. Thus, teachers-like students-usually have strongly held presuppositions about the roles of the teacher and student, the nature of learning and what constitutes progress in the classroom. NLP research and practice over the last twenty-five years confirms that achieving excellence is helped when we act as if we believe the presuppositions which the method promotes (Revell, NLP Trainer).

Some NLP Presuppositions

1.     The map is not the territory. [Our senses filter everything we experience.]
2.     What you believe either is true or becomes true.[Perceptions are individual and influence behavior.]
3.     The mind and the body affect each other.[Thought, emotions and behavior are interconnected.]
4.     Knowing what you want helps you to get it.[Identify your goals and break them down into manageable tasks.]
5.     The meaning of your communication is the response you get.[Communication is not your intention; it is an experiential process.]
6.     There is no failure, only feedback.[Stop blaming yourself if something isn't working. Try something else!]
7.      Communication is verbal and non-verbal.[You are always sending and receiving messages.]
8.      Modeling excellent behavior leads to excellence. [Find the model and follow the pattern.]
9.      There is a positive intention behind every behavior.[People respond in the only way they know how at the time.]

      In applying NLP presuppositions to the classroom, teachers first must look to their own perceptual models regarding the nature of learning and student performance. Central issues involve identifying individual behavioral and communicative patterns which contribute to learning or which may be impacting learners negatively. Assisting a student to make positive changes for learning as well as living, requires teachers to recognize personal strengths and weaknesses and to challenge limitations as they program themselves as models of excellence for the students. Teachers who can foster a classroom laboratory environment where NLP presuppositions are actively practiced enable students to develop creative self confidence as they approach learning tasks and life tasks. A student matures wisely and can become a life-long learner who begins to understand that "anything can be learned if it is chunked properly." A student relates more effectively with teachers and peers when recognizing that "communication is an on-going verbal and nonverbal process." A student develops leadership ability and self-esteem when solving problems with "many- rather than a few -choices." A student appreciates diversity when recognizing that "the map is not the territory." Percepetual models imposed by a culture, or a society, or one individual are challenged by teachers who can model these NLP presuppositions in the classroom behavior while teaching students to consciously use them.

Identifying Trouble Spots in the Classroom

      While business professionals and therapists have been working with NLP since the l980's, educators in the US have been slow to embrace the attitude, as Bandler calls it, for the classroom. Perhaps one reason is that many NLP techniques overlap with more familiar ones such as accelerated and affective learning strategies. It is possible that teachers, unfamiliar with what makes NLP a unique method, mistakenly assume that they already know all they need to know about the field. What is it that makes NLP a tool for the 21st century classroom? It is fast and easy to apply. It helps teachers and students to identify trouble spots quickly. For example, students who exhibit behavioral patterns such as forgetfulness or hyperactivity are frequently diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). While medication-Ritalin in particular-is prescribed as a temporary or long-term solution for some children, NLP can provide an alternative approach. Learning how to anchor a strong sensory impression and then link it with an internal image helps a forgetful learner to remember. Knowing how to control the intensity and speed of images can relieve internal pressures which hyperactive learners experience and then express through external excitability.

The Student's Perspective

      NLP training also shows students how to identify outcomes and then test them for viability. Chunking up (enlarging) and chunking down (detailing) a task or a goal using guided imagery teaches students how to sequence learning into achievable units. Subsequently, self-knowledge and confidence develop as students learn how to read the road maps of their experience and how to deal with the internal dialogues and emotional reactions which result in behavior and concepts of self-worth. Significantly, NLP's "trail of techniques" can show students how to confront personal fears and angers, freeing them from ego-agenda traps which restrict potential. Getting the students to adopt such attitudes is not as difficult as it might seem. NLP's Basic Action Model (BAM) of NLP is a fundamental technique for learners to understand the process of communication and to practice behavioral strategies for meeting goals while relating effectively with others. Through role plays and problem solving exercises, teachers can provide their students with an important NLP concept:

The Basic Action Model

      The Basic Action model is simple for students to understand and for the most part self- evident. The problem in using it, however, is that understanding does not necessarily lead to practice. Consequently, many different NLP techniques have been developed which allow a practitioner to explore goal setting or sensory acuity or communicative flexibility. For example, students can quickly and easily learn to use many NLP exercises use "Life Levels" to check on the desirability of a specific outcome by viewing it from the perspectives (or levels) of students' individual resources and behavior, personal beliefs and values and, ultimately, their identity and mission. Another example is the "Walt Disney" strategy which helps students to problem-solve an outcome by having them shift perceptual states from dreamer to realist to critic as they explore how creative ideas become successfully realized. A third technique is "Swish", a fast phobia-cure which requires students to substitute positive mental imagery or positive sounds for negative ones which restrict or limit behavior.

      These and other NLP exercises make it possible for students to become self-directed and and self-confident learners primarily because they start to assume more responsibility for the communicative and behavioral decisions they make in their lives. That means students learn to recognize and acknowledge that they create their own belief system and act accordingly. NLP models require those who use the strategies to live more honestly, without blaming others for what is happening to them. It does no good to blame others for interpersonal situations that are uncomfortable or for goals that are unmet. NLP reminds learners "if you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got. " NLP then invites learners to take charge of our own lives.

Oh To Be an Eagle

Oh to be an eagle
And swoop down from a peak
With the golden sunlight flashing
From the fierce hook of my beak.
'Oh to be an eagle
And to terrify the sky
With the beat of wings like thunder
And a wild, barbaric cry.
'Oh to be an eagle…but why keep dreaming?
I must learn to be myself,'
Said the rubber duckling sadly
On its soapy bathroom shelf.

Richard Edwards

      Like the rubber duckling of the poem, many students have dreams of flying high. When children, they play at make-believe and invite others to "let's pretend." As adolescents, they imagine what it would be like to star in a movie of their life story. They try out various roles: "Rocky," "Indiana Jones," or, perhaps, "Shakespeare"-in love. As college students, they explore majors based on what they'd like to "be" rather than "do." And so it goes throughout life. For many students, the dreams fail and, borrowing a phrase from Langston Hughes poem "Harlem," wither and "dry up like a raisin in the sun" (Barnet, 1989). If schools can help students to believe that they are works in progress, then we can empower them. Their futures are not determined and their identities are not fixed. As this article is suggesting, NLP can be a tool for the 21st century classroom to help students re-create themselves. NLP can make a difference in a life that makes a difference.

Come to the Edge

"Come to the edge!"
"Tis too high!"
"Come to the edge!"
"We might fall!"
"Come to the edge!"
So they came to the edge and
He pushed them and

Guillaume Apollinaire

What Makes the Difference: Background

      At the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the early l970's, linguistics professor John Grinder and mathematician-computer programmer Richard Bandler were exploring the nature and science of human excellence. In particular they were investigating the difference that makes the difference between someone who excels and someone who does not. They wondered, for example, why one individual was able to remain positive in spite of great difficulties, while another was crushed by small setbacks. They questioned why some people had a facility for building and maintaining relationships, while others failed to establish rapport. They were curious about the distinctive linguistic patterns and nonverbal messages individuals used in comparable interpersonal situations. What made the difference between a superior performance and an inferior one? What were the factors in language patterns, physiology, the experience of reality and the interpretation of that experience which contributed to success or imposed limitations?

Metaphors for a Change

      NLP is a methodology for managing rapid and positive change. It is a methodology, some say "an attitude," that could prove especially useful for the classroom, enabling teachers to become more successful communicators and empowering students to process for excellence. It is a blueprint for educators to share with students as they learn how to make positive changes which can make a difference in lives both in and out of the classroom. One favorite NLP technique to communicate ideas and help someone tap into the unconscious self is to use metaphors. A particularly skillful master of the story metaphor was hypno-therapist Milton Erickson, who served Grinder and Bandler as a role model in this area. As most teachers know, metaphors can raise a learner's awareness of hidden resources but they can also identify limitations. Consider, for example the following story:

The Dancing Centipede
Once there was a centipede who delighted in dancing. At night when the moon began to rise and shed its soft light onto the grassy slope below, Centipede would stretch one of her several beautiful long legs. "Aaaahhh…" she would sigh into the cool night air. And then, she would close her eyes and begin to sway to the music of the nearby stream as it splashed over the pebbles and stones. Slowly, at first, her numerous dainty feet started to move by two's and four's and ten's in a carefully choreographed pattern, faster and faster, until she found herself framed in her spotlight from the moon. Head thrown back, legs outstretched she belted in true Ethel Merman fashion "I'm just a Broadway Baby… 100 legs-each kicking higher than the last, "Struttin' my stuff…" 100 feet , each encased in a tiny gold slipper, "All over the earth to-night." Now swinging from the branch of an abandoned hut, Bat wanted to join her - Top hat, tails, and all - but the movements were so … amazing! So brilliant! So dazzling! So absolutely out of his league! He would have to settle for admiration only - and a dream. From the water's shallows, Frog ribbeted appreciation and Cricket chirped as Centipede executed one multi-legged split after another, finally concluding with a twisting top spiral balancing herself deftly on the tips of her 50th right and left legs, all 98 others tucked one round the other. Goose was absolutely energized by the evening's performance and couldn't stop honking "Bravo's" as she waddled over to where Centipede paused still lost in her moment of artistic brilliance. "Simply stunning," Lizard hissed and whistled. "Oh, please, show us how you do it," cooed Dove from a branch. "Yeesss, pleeaassee," they all shouted. "Tell us! Which foot do you start with? And which foot do you end with? How do you know what to do?" "Quiet, everyone," said Centipede confidently untwirling herself with ease. Everybody moved closer to hear her words of wisdom. She smiled at the admiring audience in front of her, took a deep breath and said, "Well, first I…" She paused, looked at her feet, moved several of them this way and that."I…"And, then, she wobbled - ever so slightly - and a curious, confused expression came across her face. From that night on, Centipede never danced again.

(Adapted folk tale)

      Although the talented Centipede was baffled into paralysis by questions exploring her technique, had she studied NLP, she probably would have danced after that night and,what's more, she could have learned how to share her skills with others. How can this metaphor be useful for teachers to learn about NLP and to share insights about behavior? Many teachers-and students-are like both the Centipede and her Admirers. They have a special skill (the Centipede) and, still they desire something more (the Admirers). They have a knack for doing some things well but suddenly become confused and stumped when trying to explain or analyze performance. What does that imply about skill or talents and, also, the thinking processes? How conscious are we of what we do? Is a particular skill inspired by the gods or is it a habit developed over time by persistence and practice? Viola Spolin, the American artist-educator and author of several books on improvisational theatre techniques for children and adults, strongly objected to the concept of talent as a special genius. Spolin insisted that each of us, at birth, has a capacity to experience and as we progress through life, we either expand that capacity or we limit it.

We learn through experience and experiencing and no one teaches anyone anything. This is as true for the infant moving from kicking to crawling as it is the scientist with his equations. If the environment permits it, anyone can learn whatever he chooses to learn, and if the individual permits it, the environment will teach him everything it has to teach.
(Spolin, l963)

      Grinder and Bandler might disagree with Spolin that "no one teaches us anything,"but they would concur with her that students learn holistically, through an involvement which is mentally, physiologically and emotionally interconnected. In working with students, Spolin helped them to "re-form" through exercises that encouraged spontaneity and stimulated sub-conscious memories. In this way, Spolin claimed, students could free themselves from old frames of reference (habits or perceptual models) and discover the abundant resources hidden within. NLP research on high achievers similar to Spolin, confirms that individual perceptions of reality, of personal effectiveness and particular limitations are based on the way our senses filter personal engagement with the world. Thus, we all program ourselves for success or failure from an early age through the perceptual models we create and which we identify as "reality." Students, for example, who do not perform well on exams often carry feelings of inadequacy into subsequent testing experiences or other aspects of their school lives. Teachers who assume that their communicative style serves students who know how to learn often become frustrated and demoralized when assignments are misunderstood. The anthropologist Carlos Castaneda describes this process of creating reality in metaphoric language.

Sorcerers say that we are inside a bubble. It is a bubble into which we are placed at the moment of our birth. At first, the bubble is open, but then it begins to close until it has sealed us in. The bubble is our perception. We live inside that bubble all of our lives and what we witness on its round walls is our own reflection.
(Castaneda, 1974)

Models and Modeling

      Teachers who want to understand how they do what they do (Centipede) can find in NLP procedures to increase personal awareness. For those who want to move beyond perceptual and behavioral limitations (Centipede again), NLP can serve as a toolbox to liberate and empower. This freedom is at the heart of NLP and flows directly from the fundamental presuppositions we considered above. The roots of the NLP presuppositions can be traced back to those individuals that Grinder and Bandler chose to study and to model in the early days. Among the central subjects were anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Carlos Castaneda, linguists Noam Chomsky and Alfred Kozybski, and three distinguished psychotherapists: Virginia Satir (Family and Systems Therapy), Fritz Perls (Gestalt therapy) and Milton Erickson (Hypno-therapy).

      The research focused on how these individuals used interpersonal and intrapersonal language to achieve their goals over and over again. But what were the thought processes that were occurring that helped them perform so successfully? Bandler and Grinder along with co-workers Robert Dilts, Judith DeLozier, Stephen Gilligan, and Leslie Cameron Bandler identified mental patterns interconnected with physiological, and linguistic ones that they then codified. Often these patterns, or models as they came to be known, were unconscious for the person who was modeling the behavior. If one were to ask then, what makes NLP unique, the answer would be modeling as a practical tool to bring about rapid and effective behavioral change.

Moving Past Therapy

      Over the last 15 years, NLP research has enriched the discipline and moved it to fields beyond therapy. Today, NLP is used by men and women in business, sports, the health and legal professions, teaching and learning. While some techniques in NLP borrow from studies being conducted in allied fields such as multiple intelligences, accelerated learning, and neuro-semantics, a primary emphasis is to integrate theories and develop techniques which are easy to use. Today, NLP training continues as it began with the basic premise that the more aware people are of experiencing and processing reality, the more able they are to manage their lives.

"Re-form," encouraged Spolin.
"Re-program," insists NLP, and here's a story about someone who did:

The Priest and the Thief
One evening as the Buddhist priest, Shichiri Kojun, was reciting his sutras, a man with a knife crept up behind him."Give me your money!" the man threatened. Without turning his head, Shichiri answered, "Do not disturb me. You will find the money in the cupboard near the wall." And then he resumed his recitation. A few moments later, Shichiri paused and called: "Don't take it all, though. I need to pay my taxes tomorrow." The man returned a few coins to the cupboard and started towards the door. As he opened it, he heard Shichiri say, "Thank a person when you receive a gift." The man called over his shoulder, "You are thanked," and he fled into the dark night. Within a few weeks, the man was arrested for theft. At his trial, Shichiri appeared with many others who claimed that the man had stolen from them. When it was Shichiri's turn to testify, he was asked if the accused man had stolen anything. Shichiri replied, "No. He entered my house. He asked me for money. I told him that it was in my cupboard. He took some. And then he thanked me for it." When the man finished his prison term, he went to Shichiri and became his disciple.

Japanese Folk Tale

      We don't know what Shichiri advised his disciple to do when they met again. We do know, however, that in their earlier encounters something significant occurred to cause the man to seek out Shichiri as a teacher. What was it he experienced? In the first encounter, Shichiri responds to the intruder not as a fixed identity, a "thief," but, instead, as someone who is "a human being in process," someone who is asking for money. It is significant that Schichiri is experiencing life in the present. He, therefore, does not entrap himself into a limited choice of action Telling the man where he will find money, Shichiri then makes three requests of him. The man agrees and does as Shichiri asks. It is logical, therefore, that in the courtroom when asked by the judges and lawyers to explain what happened, Shichiri can describe with full candor that one evening he encountered the man now in the dock, a man with whom he was in full rapport. In NLP terms, they had met for the first time and minimized their differences while maximizing their similarities. Many things are learned from this story, not the least of which is that if situations can change so, too, can a skillful communicator pace and lead another person to alter behavior. From an NLP perspective, Schichiri is a model/teacher. What the disciple/student learns from him is not described. But what we learn from the metaphor, in NLP terms, is that the teacher who remains in the present, flexible and open to possibilities can influence their students for a life-change and, most probably, for a life-time.

      In NLP, models of excellence are both persons and patterns. The model patterns help learners to balance both conscious and unconscious aspects of thinking and lead them to break automatic and habitual responses. The model patterns also encourage learners to respond with more openness and to rely less on those self taught internal frames of reference which may be distorted or generalized. Teachers who model with NLP encourage students to try on multiple ways of thinking so that they can experience being in the here and now, alert and flexible and present. Being present means translating intentions into actions and paying careful attention to how others respond. It means changing what is not working for something else that does. It means responding with a different choice from the usual, learning and practicing how to say and do something different from what was said and done before. Someone once said that being present means learning to experience yourself as a verb, as a work in progress. If we start with that realization, our road will very likely be fascinating.

Author's Note

      The author would like to give special thanks to Master Practitioner and certified NLP Trainer Jane Revell, London, UK, for sharing her insights about NLP and stimulating her students to experience those changes that matter for a lifetime.


Bandler, R. and J. Grinder. 1979. Frogs Into Princes. Moab, Utah: Real People Press.

Castaneda, Carlos. 1974. Tales of Power. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Edwards, Richard. 1997. "Oh, To Be An Eagle." In Susie Gibbs (ed.), Treasury of Poetry for Children, (p.230). London: MacMillan Pub. Ltd.

Hughes, Langston. 1989. "Harlem." In Sylvan Barnet et al (eds.) An Introduction to Literature. New York: Harper Collins Publisher.

Revell, J. and S. Norman. l997. In your Hands: NLP for ELT. London: Saffire Press.

Spolin, Viola. 1963. Improvisation for the Theatre: A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Recommended Materials

NLP Magazines and Journals
Anchorpoint, 346 South 500 East, Suite 200, Salt Lake City, Utah 84102. The NLP Connection, PO Box 120009-168, Scottsdale, Arizona, 85267. Rapport, PO Box 78, Stourbridge, West Midlands, DY8 2YP, UK.

NLP Web Sites
Association of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (UK) modeling database, modeling projects, NLP education, information and articles, NLP for education and ADD learners.

Some Influences on NLP

Bateson, Gregory. 1988. Steps to an Ecology of the Mind. New York: Ballantine Books.

Chomsky, Noam. 1972. Language and Mind. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Harris, Carol. 1999. NLP: An Introductory Guide to the Art and Science of Excellence. Shaftesbury, Dorset: Element.

Korzybski, Alfred. 1933. Science and Sanity. Lakeville, CT: The International Non-Aristotelian Publishing Company.

Perls, Frederik S. l979. Gestalt Therapy Verbatim. Moab, UT: Real People Press.

Satir, Virginia. 1972. People Making. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books.

NLP Best Sellers

Andreas, Steve and Connierae Andreas. 1989. Heart of the Mind. Moab, UT: Real People Press.

Apollinaire, Guillaume. "Come to the Edge." NLP Diploma Course. London: KITE. January 5-8, 1999.

Bandler, Richard. 1985.Using Your Brain for a Change. Moab, UT: Real People Press.

Bandler, Richard and John Grinder. 1976. The Structure of Magic, Vol. I-II. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books.

Charvet, Shelle Rose. 1997. Words That Change Minds: Mastering the Language of Influence. Dubuque, IO: Kendall Hunt Publishing Company.

Dilts, Robert. 1990.Changing Belief Systems with NLP. Capitola, CA: Meta Publications.

Dilts, Robert and Todd Epstein. 1995. Dynamic Learning. Capitola, CA: Meta Publications.

Edwards, Richard. "Oh, To Be an Eagle," in Susie Gibbs, ed., Treasury of Poetry for Children. London: Macmillan Children's Books, 1997, p. 230.

Grinder, Michael. 1991. Righting the Educational Conveyer Belt. Portland, Oregon: Metamorphous Press.

Lloyd, Linda. 1990. Classroom Magic. Portland, Oregon: Metamorphous Press.

Revell, J. and S. Norman. l999. Handing Over: NLP-Based Activities for Language Learning. London: Saffire Press.

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