So What Do You Do Then?
Steve Hirschhorn is a British language teacher and teacher trainer with 40 years of experience at all levels of the profession both in the private and public sectors. Although officially retired, Steve still travels delivering training, workshops and seminars for teachers and other professionals. His special interests include Silent Way, the use of the Cuisenaire Rods (for which he has written a book to be published in 2022) and generally challenging the current apparently irresistible trends in language education. He has a Master’s in Applied Linguistics, a Post Graduate Certificate in Higher Education (distinction) and is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He has twice won the Walpole Prize for Excellence in Teaching. Email: email@example.com
This article is based in part on the lecture the author gave in 2005 at St Mary’s University College (as it was then) on the topic of NLP in language teaching.
Having recently expressed my disapproval of unverified and unevidenced ‘add-ons’ in language teaching, I was recently asked what I did instead of using NLP in the language classroom. I have to confess that this question floored me! I mean it’s a bit like asking someone what they do instead of believing in aliens.
So let’s just take a few moments to look at what NLP actually is and where it came from: NLP was the result of work done by John Grinder and Richard Bandler in the 1970s. Bandler and Grinder began by studying the highly successful therapeutic techniques of Milton Erikson in Hypnotherapy, Fritz Perles in Gestalt and Virginia Satir in Family Therapy. All seemed to have something in common in the way they worked, and that something was a communicative device which appeared to be in tune with their clients: what became known in NLP as the Primary Representational System or PRS. It was noticed that brilliant therapists seemed to achieve a high level of concord with their patients by, to some degree, reflecting their speech patterns and non-verbal communication.
NLP claims that each of us has a PRS, which means that we process information in specific modes: visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, olfactory or gustatory. According to NLP theory, a person's PRS can be determined by the kinds of words they use or by the direction of their eye movements during processing as well as breathing patterns and other ‘advanced’ clues. Supposedly, a therapist will have a better rapport with a client if they have a matching PRS. Having established ‘where’ one’s interlocutor is, one can respond accordingly, to keep them there or even to shift them somewhere more conducive to change.
Indeed NLP was originally a therapeutic tool as books by Bandler and Grinder such as ‘Frogs into Princes’ and ‘The Structure of Magic’ indicate. I say ‘originally’ because not long after its debut, as it were, it was appropriated by business in order to – well, do what business does – make money. So a highly effective therapeutic process was commandeered and forced to work selling vacuum cleaners.
So how did it slide into language teaching?
One of the reasons may be the ‘Linguistic’ in Neuro Linguistic Programming. Language teachers are interested in the linguistics which make us tick and so view NLP as an extension of what they already do. Unfortunately there are several arguments against that notion. First off is that already mentioned: NLP was designed for therapy and teaching language is not offering therapy even if some think it should with the inclusion of ‘mindfulness’ activities etc. Secondly, the vast majority of teachers who purport to use it (and other such techniques) are not qualified to do so. Thirdly there is scant evidence of its effectiveness as a teaching tool – indeed, some would argue that there is no such evidence at all beyond the anecdotal.
A sceptic might comment that it would be nice to have some empirical support for the claims commonly made by NLP but I have found this comment many times in NLP literature:
“You don’t have to believe. If you don’t, pretend to believe”.
In other words suspend your critical belief systems and see what happens. Personally I can do that with almost anything, especially bank statements but it’s not a course of action which most in the scientific community readily agree to. Although having said that, there are many examples of scientific endeavour which have had to do just that before reaching a conclusion. In terms of evidence or even research we find ourselves in pretty deep water unless we suspend belief.
NLP is not extensively reviewed in our own (ELT) literature:
Puchta has contributed a chapter to Jane Arnold’s 1999 Affect in Language Learning.
Richards and Rogers’ 1986 Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching deals with Suggestopedia, Silent Way, TPR and other approaches but does not mention NLP.
Richard and Renandya 2002 Methodology in Language Teaching, had plenty of space to include NLP but didn’t.
Williams and Burden 1997 Psychology for Language Teachers makes no mention of NLP – though it purports to offer an overview of ‘recent developments’ in the field of educational psychology. I could go on..
NLP is only mentioned in ELTJ in the review sections and bibliographies. In other words no-one has had an article dealing directly with NLP printed for that journal.
Keith Morrow (the Editor) told me some years ago:
“Since 2002, [up to 2005] we have had two submissions dealing with NLP (out of 500+ on the database). Neither of these made it to publication for reasons unconnected with the topic.”
ETP between 1996 and 2005 (arguably the period in which NLP had its heyday in language teaching) published 6 articles dealing with NLP or closely related topics, such as the use of Metaphor.
In researching a talk I gave some years ago, I reviewed 57 abstracts from academic studies relating to NLP. Broadly speaking, these dealt with:
Eye movements: 13.5
Phobia treatment: 3
PRS matching: 30.5
Aggression and anxiety maintenance: 2
Self-managed change: 1
Pacing, leading and metaphor: 3: (Pacing is about demonstrating in some way that you are in the same reality as your interlocutor, leading is moving them on from there and metaphor is not metaphorical! It means what it says: the use of metaphor as a way of passing a message)
Anchoring:1 (anchoring is designed to help the recall of the positive to assist with the negative)
NLP Meta-model vs standard counselling techniques: 2
Reframing: 1 (Reframing is taking a negative view to transform it into a positive one)
Of these, the result are as follows:
Neutral or not proven either way:12 or 21%
Negative: 34 or 54% and
Positive or Proven:11, that’s 19%
To my mind this highlights one of the several difficulties with NLP which is the fundamental lack of scientifically accepted supporting evidence. I suppose if all the results of such research agreed that there was no evidence in support of an NLP hypothesis, then life would be simpler. We could say: NLP? It doesn’t work or even “that aspect of NLP doesn’t stand up to scrutiny”. But here we have a situation in which similar kinds of research are undertaken with significantly different results. Some researchers have shown that there’s a link between how someone is processing and the movements of their eyes. Others have shown that there isn’t and yet others have shown that there might be! Clearly, the scientific community doesn’t like this state of affairs and one manifestation of their frustration is, I think, to declare that NLP uses language sloppily or inaccurately. If terms appear to be misused or treated as interchangeable, then we are hampered in our attempts to understand or test hypotheses. Now this may be true from a particular point of view, but one could argue that NLP is (or was) a new field and therefore has the prerogative to adopt and adapt terminology. Unfortunately, much of the terminology it uses to describe its procedures has been borrowed from linguistics or psychology and then tweaked so it means something ever so slightly different.
So, to refer back to the question at the top of this article: what do you do instead? The answer is: I don’t use NLP. I don’t replace it with anything at all since it’s an unsupported and completely unnecessary add-on to a language teacher’s tool-box. It is also potentially harmful (as noted in the Foreword to Frogs into Princes) in the wrong i.e. unqualified hands.
Instead of putting my trust in such alleged wizardry, I watch developments in the literature though not slavishly. I teach, foster learners’ language development, treat my students as individuals, try not to influence them unnecessarily, keep an eye on their mood and react accordingly. I don’t mirror them, I don’t try to reframe them or anchor them in any specific ways beyond what one human does to another without applying any special jargon.
So, yes, what do you instead of believing in aliens? I simply don’t. There doesn’t need to be anything to replace that.
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