NLP and Language

Filed Under (NLP life coaching) on 01-02-2012

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Language is in the heart of NLP and in its very name!  NLP means Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Language is the basis of communication of living creatures. Animals have language. If language wasn’t important, would people develop and preserve hundreds of its forms?  How is NLP connected with language?  And what tricks can an NLP-lay member of the public apply to his/her life?

Language = the tip of an iceberg

Whenever people say or write things, they leave out a lot of information.  Otherwise it would take forever to describe anything.  So the language we hear or read is the tip of a huge iceberg.  People take for granted that we will fill in the submerged parts to make sense of what they communicate – given the context we’re in and what we know about the person.

We can find out what is in the submerged part of the iceberg if we ask questions that we hope will give us more information.  Many people rarely actively seek further information from the speaker.  People are more likely to do so when they’re confused, disagree, or need more information.  When we start to examine what people [and we] say, we find that we take a lot for granted, leave a vast amount out, make sweeping generalizations [that have few or no qualifications], and make meaning of absolutely any utterance we read or hear.

Communication is not only about the specific sentences that a person utters.

Each person has a history and exists in a particular context. The combination of the history and context gives meaning to what the person says.  S/he has learnt to describe the world in which s/he lives in certain ways, often symbolically and metaphorically, and takes a lot of that world for granted.  The more you find out about how people think, the more you’ll realize how very different they are from you.  People live in radically different worlds and presuppose radically different things.  It is amazing that we manage to communicate at all!

We may notice these differences when people are being specific.  But when their language is vague,  we usually invent meaning based on our experience and this may have nothing in common with what they’re talking about!  Nevertheless, you often hear people say: “I know exactly what you mean”.  If only! Therefore if you want to clarify what someone is saying, elicit more information about the context of the communication.  This is where NLP comes in.  What is vague?  What has been left out?  Or what is possible?  What are the rules here?  And what is true for this speaker / writer?

You can start with yourself.

Take one of your habits of speech and start exploring it. Ask:

  • What makes me say this?
  • Similarly, what led to me saying this?
  • Why am I saying this?
  • What am I hoping to achieve by saying this?

Every sentence that someone utters comes from at least one of these three ways of the speaker’s being: deletion, generalization, distortion.

Deletion is deleting.  We pay attention to what we deem important.  We cannot pay attention to everything. Hence we must be selective, otherwise our senses would constantly be overwhelmed.  We ignore or simply do not notice a lot of potential information in our environment. This is exactly what deletion is.

When you’re telling someone about your vacation/holiday, you’re imagining the place exactly as it was when you were there with all the sights, sounds, people, action, smells, and tastes you experienced there.  But if you were to describe all that to someone, you’d never finish talking!  So you only describe what you deem most important.

Generalization is generalizing.  Over time we begin to notice that some things stay the same, other things recur, and there’s consistency in our experience.  By noticing these regularities we simplify our understanding of them and draw conclusions. We devise laws and rules to predict (with varying degrees of success) what is likely to happen in future.  This is generalization.

Do you have to figure out what a door handle / knob is for every time you see one?

Distortion is distorting.  Each person lives in their own world. This world is our reality which has meaning for us.  Within our reality we make connections and interpret things at an abstract level.  Others live in their own realities which are very different from ours.  If we wish to engage with others, we need to discover something about their reality.  We’re likely to interpret and infer meaning from others’ states, behaviors, and utterances according to our reality. We often base our interpretations on minimal or no evidence, or make connections between disparate phenomena, sometimes without any sensory experience to check them out.  This is distortion.

How many times did you say or hear others say “I know exactly how you feel…”?  If only you knew!  You’ve no idea – until you ask!

And how did you acquire language?

We all come into the world equipped with linguistic skills.  Children acquire language in stages.  Babies make noises from birth.  By 4 months they can read lips and discriminate speech sounds.  They also begin babbling.  Why is babbling important?  In his book The Language Instinct Steven Pinker offers this perspective:

The infant is like a person who has been given a complicated piece of audio equipment bristling with unlabelled knobs and switches, but missing the instructions manual.  In such situation people resort to what hackers call frobbing – fiddling with the controls to see what happens.  By listening to their own babbling babies in effect “write their own manual”; they learn how much to move which muscle in which way to make which sound.  This is a prerequisite for duplicating the speech of their parents.

There is some fascinating evidence to support this view.  Each infant produces sounds that are truly universal, including sounds which will not be required in some languages.  If you listen to this early babbling, you won’t be able to tell whether the infant is German, Canadian, Ghanaian, or Chinese.  But by 10 months of the infant’s age you will be able to tell, because the telltale sounds and intonations of the language of the household will have become predominant.  And yes, deaf infants also babble!

And while acquiring language…

acquiring vocabulary grows slowly. After 1 year a few new words are added each month.  The 18 months-old knows between 3 and 50 words and a 2 year-old knows 50 words or more.  From then vocabulary grows so rapidly that it doubles every 6 months between 2 and 4 years of age. Hence a child is learning several new words every day.

The average 6 year-old knows between 8,000 and 14,000 words and an average North American high school graduate about 80,000.   That averages more than 5,000 words learnt a year, or 13 words a day!  This number far exceeds the 200 words per year formally taught in school.  How you did it – how the more than 5,000 words you learnt in a year could so far outnumber the rough 200 words a year that your teachers taught you – is one of the great wonders of human development.  Before children can add two and two they’re creating original grammatically appropriate sentences.

Finally, how did you learn to use language?

Many 2 year-olds who are learning new words use irregular verbs correctly: came for the past tense of come, went for the past tense of go. They’re simply repeating what they’ve heard.  But when they’re older and wiser, they apply the rules of grammar and generalise – they talk about tooths and mouses and people who comed and goed, and come up with statements such as “I finded teddy’ and “I holded mommy’s hand”.   These language patterns sound wrong to us, because we have memorised the English irregular verbs.  This overregularisation of language is common at the preschool age and once children of this age learn a rule, they can be quite stubborn in applying it!  Although technically wrong, overregularisation is a sign of verbal sophistication as children are applying rules of grammar.  Children spontaneously correct their speech after hearing the correct forms often enough.

Would you like to know more about how you can apply NLP to your language? Let’s talk about it.

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