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The Birkenbihl Approach: Decoding a Text. Which Languages Are Particularly Suitable?

Decoding means to “decipher” and is a central element of the well-known Birkenbihl Approach. The aim is to translate word-for-word a foreign text into one’s mother tongue. By doing so, the foreign language is decoded (deciphered) step by step. The Birkenbihl Approach is not for learning isolated vocabulary but is for learning the sentence as a whole segment. This way, we feed our brain with context, not with isolated vocabulary.

Decoding depends on your very own discovery. You can use paper or online dictionaries to decode your text. When learning step by step, you support the natural functioning of your brain.

>> Would you like to learn more?
Take a look at our blog article explaining the decoding method.

If you listen to isolated phrases and word pairs (e. g. dog-Hund), your brain has difficulties in processing. Because at this point, you do not know anything about using vocabulary correctly in a full sentence. When the words are in context, however, we can understand the sentence’s meaning, intention and – thanks to decoding – vocabulary.

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But is learning a language’s grammar that bad? Learning individual rules by heart is of little use. We do not criticize grammar learning at all but instead recommend the following: get a first impression of the foreign language at the beginning and try to understand it. Then comes the grammar learning! When you understand all of the grammar terms, only then can you can internalize the rules behind them. Grammar is essential, of course! Just as important, however, is HOW you learn a language’s grammar.

We want to present to you some languages that are particularly suitable for decoding, especially languages with foreign letters: Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Russian.

JAPANESE

The phonetic structure of the Japanese language is straightforward and limited; at the same time, there are only limited options for word formations. The result is that words with entirely different meanings have the same sound, which creates so-called “homophones.” Each monosyllabic word has more than one meaning: e. g. “e” = image, handle etc. Even with two-syllable or multi-syllable words, you will encounter “homophones” in the Japanese language: “sake” = rice wine, salmon etc. In German, on the other hand, we very rarely encounter this phenomenon: e. g. “Schloss” can be a building or a locking system. These homophones can be differentiated only very slightly by the typeface or by learning vocabulary in context. That is why it is vital, especially in Japanese, learning words only in context. Due to the sentence’s structure, it is impossible not to think of the correct term. That’s how you’ll learn the words‘ meanings, multiple meanings and the language’s grammar intuitively and with fun.

Decoding a Text. Which Languages Are Particularly Suitable?

KOREAN

You could learn the Korean alphabet (Hangul/Hanguel) in just two hours. It is quite simple because it consists of only 10 vowels and 19 consonants. As a result, there are not many Korean characters to learn. And even if we add the double vowels, it is an easy script system to learn with only a few central letters. The grammar is simple too. You don’t have to worry about the gender or plural considering verbs. For example, “she goes“ and “he goes” are both conjugated the same way. It only gets a little more demanding when the person you are addressing is older or in a higher position. Therefore, decoding is particularly suitable for learning Korean.


RUSSIAN

Russian pronunciation can be a real challenge for someone who is just beginning to learn the language. Also, standard Russian dictionaries do not contain phonetic transcriptions of Russian words. And although the rules on the Russian pronunciation are quite strict, they are, at the same time, complicated and contain many exceptions. For example, the letter “a” can be pronounced in five different ways. Remembering all these pronunciation rules can be very tedious. It is much easier to learn Russian by using the Birkenbihl method. After having decoded a text or sentence, you should listen to a native recording. First, you read the decoding line (“active listening”). Later, you can read the Russian decoding line. In the end, you won’t need to read the text; you’ll subconsciously listen. (“Passive listening”).

Furthermore, Russian grammar is very complex. Besides conjugation verbs, you also have to add suffixes to words informing about tenses, persons and numbers. To avoid the tedious learning of rules, we recommend decoding the words into their original form (e .g into the infinitive form). You can translate the suffixes (given that this is possible in your native language), or you don’t translate them, but instead add them to the second decoding line (decoding into your mother tongue). This procedure gives you a feeling for the use of grammar and words – without cramming grammar. You’d prefer to learn rules? Of course, the Birkenbihl method does not exclude grammar rules. But we recommend that you develop a sense of the language first and then have a look at the language’s rules. Because only when you can understand the content, you will understand and internalize the language’s rules.


CHINESE

The explanation goes into more detail here, as we were able to gain experience with learning the language ourselves.

Chinese is also particularly suitable for the decoding method. Chinese is one of the few languages in which sentences are formed exclusively with infinitive verbs and singular nouns.

Example:
In German, we say: “Ich frage ihn” and “Du magst ihn.”
In English, we say: “I ask him” and “You like him.”
In Chinese, we say: “I ask he” und “You like he.”

The Chinese word always remains in its original form, because it has no grammar in the way that words change because of tense or case. Russian, Turkey, Spanish and German, on the other hand, are good examples of languages that need further decoding. Thanks to conjugations, plural forms and cases, words always look different. So do the tenses. But if you want to use Chinese in the past tense, you’ll have to add only a suffix (了, “le”), which means literally “done.”

Example:
In German, we say: “Ich habe dich gefragt.”
In English, we say: “I asked you.”
In Chinese, we say: “I ask you done.”

A lot of people say that Chinese is a syllable language. Vera F. Birkenbihl once noted in her seminar, “From zero knowledge to some Chinese”: “Don’t believe them.” Why? Because Chinese words can consist of one character (thus one word) or several characters. However, they are not syllables but words. The problem when cramming vocabulary is that you’ll get the “finished” word, but you won’t know its background. It would be so much easier and more enjoyable to understand its origin. Vera F. Birkenbihl called these compounds words “word addition.” Here is an example:

Mandarin:
Pinyin:
Decoding:
Meaning:

人力车
rénlìchē
human-power-vehicle
= rickshaw

Mandarin:
Pinyin:
Decoding:
Meaning:

同志
tóngzhì
same-target
= comrade

Mandarin:
Pinyin:
Decoding:
Meaning:

中国
Zhōngguó
empire-middle
= China (the Middle Empire)

Chinese is also a context-based language, which means the more content you have, the clearer a word’s sentence or even paragraph becomes. When you start learning characters at the beginning, you will feel lost. Start by understanding the language and use the Pinyin system. This spoken language uses the Latin alphabet to describe the pronunciation. It also informs about the different sounds (there are 5 in Chinese). But don’t worry: these tones are not as decisive as people tend to claim.

“Kiss” and “ask” only differ in their sound. Wěn (third sound) means “to kiss,” whereas wèn (fourth sound) means “to ask.” Nevertheless, there is no need for unpleasant misunderstandings.

If you simply pronounce the words one by one, they differ only in their emphasis. However, the sentence’s context does not permit any confusion. If I’d like to give someone a kiss, that meant:

Chinese:
Pinyin:
Decoding:
Meaning:

我可以吻你吗?
Wǒ kěyǐ wěn nǐ ma?
I can kiss you ma (interrogative)
Can I kiss you?

When I want to ask a question:

Chinese:
Pinyin:
Decoding:

Meaning:

我可以问你一​个​问题吗?
Wǒ kěyǐ wèn nǐ yī gè wèntí ma?
I can ask you one-ge (classifier) question ma (interrogative)?
Can I ask you a question?

As soon as you learn Chinese without context (based only on characters and vocabulary), you will notice that the characters and words have so many meanings, and the sounds are so similar that you hardly have a chance to express or choose a word in a correct way. But if you learn Chinese in context, i. e. using full sentences, it’s probably the simplest language in the world. And the risk of being misunderstood decreases considerably.

Using the Birkenbihl Approach and the decoding method, you don’t start with learning how to spell “大” (= large). You also do not learn how to say “big” in Chinese. You’ll learn in a full sentence:

Mandarin:
Pinyin:
Decoding:
Meaning:

你今年多​大?
Nǐ jīnnián duō dà?
You this year how-much big?
How old are you (this year)?

You understand what the individual words mean. However, you do not yet create any new sentences. Instead, you learn additional sentences:

Mandarin:
Pinyin:
Decoding:
Meaning:

我在上海大学工作
Wǒ zài Shànghǎi dàxué gōngzuò.
I in Shanghai University work.
I work at the Shanghai University.

You’ll learn that “daxue” has the meaning “university.” Without a context, “da” means “big,” as we know from the previous example. “Xue” means “school”. A big school is, therefore, a university. This way, you’ll understand how the words are structured. At the same time, you’ll learn how to make full sentences. In Chinese, it’s super easy. The sentence structure is kept very simple and is always the same.


Decoding shows how a language is structured – whether it’s a foreign script system or not. It is incredibly exciting and continuously motivates you to immerse yourself more deeply in the foreign language.

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Content Manager and blogger Katharina Rucker has devoted herself to the Birkenbihl Approach for language learning since 2011. Since 2014, she has been working as a freelancer in the field of online marketing: www.rucker-marketing.at

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