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First published in Rapport, journal of the Association for NLP (UK), Issue 52, Summer 2001
Clean Language as a Foreign Language

Philip Harland

The French organisation NLPNL (which by some twist of Gallic logic stands for 'Association francophone des certifiés en programmation neuro-linguistique') had their 11th congress in Paris in January. I went to assist Penny Tompkins and James Lawley on an historic occasion, the first presentation of Clean Language as a foreign language - English - in a foreign language - French. The workshop was entitled 'Le Changement par les Métaphores: Introduction a l'Utilisation du "Langage Propre"'.

So a new, and I think beautiful, phrase has entered the French language. 'Langage propre' has a special sense in French. Not only does 'propre' mean 'clean', as in 'proper' or 'accurate', it also has the meaning of 'own', as in 'voir avec ses propres yeux' (to see with one's own eyes). I hope the French will take their new double entendre to heart, for it describes more precisely than English can the 'proper ownership' of language in the therapeutic context. Those of us who work in Symbolic Modelling and Grovian Metaphor believe it is the client's own words that count, not the therapist's. And if a client's language is the conscious symbolic expression of unconscious sub-symbolic processing, asking Clean Language questions of their symbols (and the aggregation of those symbols in metaphor) is an entirely propre, accurate and appropriate means of honouring their experience and facilitating them to self-model effectively.

This was the first time Tompkins and Lawley have presented Clean Language in a foreign language. It was never going to be an easy ride, but as you would expect from this pair they were never less than brilliant. There were unusual challenges. In his demonstration James asked questions in English of an English-speaking Frenchwoman who answered in English, and for the benefit of the French-speaking audience both questions and answers were repeated in French by an interpreter. This meant that the bilingual client had no choice but to process James's interventions and her own responses twice over - doubly affirming, you might think, but it also prompted her to interrupt her own process several times to correct the translation, and by the time it came to ask the next question the facilitator might have forgotten much of what the client had said in response to the last. Despite these constraints the subject became deeply involved in her own process.

In the break-out exercise I worked with NLPNL's President, whose English is good but not perfect, while my French is basic. We agreed that as client he would respond in English, but feel free to go into French if English did not come easily. As facilitator I would reflect as far as I could his exact words, English or French, after which my questions could be in French or English as I chose. At the time it felt - and may sound now - like a recipe for a disaster, but strangely it went well.

I believe this is because Clean Language is clean, whatever the language. It works uncontaminated by therapist supposition, interpretation or personal metaphor.

In fact my client lapsed naturally into French as the ritual syntax of the process took over and he found himself exploring the deeper structure of his experience. I guess it would have been more of a struggle if his answers had been long and complicated, and of course it required us to have at least a smattering of the other's language, but the experience has allowed me to appreciate David Grove's innovative work in a new light. The underlying methodology of Clean Language is strict, but as a medium of therapeutic communication it works very flexibly and forgivingly. I would have no hesitation now in facilitating someone in a two-language encounter once a reasonable level of rapport has been reached.

Those interested in different languages will find working drafts of the questions in other languages on the website. Have a browse, and send me or James and Penny comments and suggestions, particularly if you have used your own version with clients in these or any other languages.

Which French version of 'And what would you like to have happen?' would you use - Et qu'est-ce que vous souhaitez qu'il se passe? Ou et qu'est-ce que vous auriez voulu qu'il se passe? How would you start in German: Und was möchtest du geschiehen haben? Oder Und was möchtest du was geschieht? Any Spanish-speaking therapists out there? Greek? Serbo-Croat?

© 2001, Philip Harland

Philip Harland
Photo of Philip Harland Philip Harland is a neurolinguistic psychotherapist with a private practice in London, England. He has written many articles on Clean Language for professional journals and the internet. In 2009 Philip published the first book related to David Grove's last innovations, Emergent Knowledge, 'THE POWER OF SIX: A Six Part Guide to Self Knowledge'. You can order a copy from or

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