My 13-year-old cousin watches all the movies in the original English language. “I want to study English later and travel a lot.” You can see the motivation in her shining eyes. “It makes me learn faster and better. School lessons don’t necessarily help.”
Her story made me sit up and take notice. Contrary to the belief that young people and children are no longer interested in anything today, there is evidence to suggest otherwise. “Many of my friends and I already speak English quite well. But we didn’t get that from school.”
Index cards and vocabulary lists are out. We asked students why: “Because it’s boring,” “Because it doesn’t do any good anyway,” “Because I don’t feel like looking at the pile of cards anymore.”
Parents who notice a gap in their child’s knowledge of a foreign language usually urge them to “finally learn the words.” They are not entirely wrong about this since vocabulary is the foundation for understanding a language. But the big difference lies in how you learn the words.
According to current psychological understanding, institutional language learning should be fundamentally and radically changed. Why this is not happening, we can only guess, which is why we prefer to offer you a practical solution: The Birkenbihl Approach.
The Birkenbihl Approach
For those who learn a new language as a child, teenager or adult in their natural environment (e.g. bilingually or in a foreign language school/kindergarten), their brain processes the new language in a similar way to their mother tongue. Based on this information, management trainer and bestselling author Vera F. Birkenbihl developed the Birkenbihl Approach for language learning.
The Birkenbihl Approach, based on decoding (word-for-word translation), allows you to learn the meaning of the words of the foreign language at the same time as the grammar.
By decoding, you can progress much faster. Let’s do an exercise:
Read the above German sentence and English decoding several times. Now cover the decoding and try to decode the German words yourself. How many words have you translated correctly after such a short time? It’s so easy that you usually get over 90 % right the first time you try it. With a little practice, you quickly reach 100 %. Voilà! You have already mastered a whole meaningful sentence in a foreign language. Isn’t that great?
We recommend writing approx. 2 to 3 sentences of the foreign-language text on a sheet of paper. An A3 sheet is best ― as there is enough space on it for comments, drawings and anything else that makes it easier to remember. Of course, decoding also works digitally, e.g. with a text tool like Word.
All details and step-by-step instructions for decoding are in our blog post: Easy language learning by Vera F. Birkenbihl ― The Decoding Method.
The Birkenbihl method is originally a 4-step method:
1. Decode: Word-for-word translation of a foreign-language text into the native language.
2. Karaoke listening: Listen to the recording of the text and read the word-for-word translation until you understand the meaning of each word.
3. Background Listening: Passive listening to the previously actively heard text as you pursue other things in everyday life. No active concentration is necessary.
4. Activities: Speak the text yourself, have conversations in everyday life, and practise dialogues.
We now know that the method can be even simpler. The steps don’t have to follow strictly one after the other. You can, for example, start with background listening and tune into a foreign language (like during a stay abroad, where you are surrounded by it). There are also different ways you can do the word-for-word translation, but more about that later.
The significant advantages of the Birkenbihl Approach are apparent: With this method, your brain learns a new language in a very natural way ― without even memorizing a word or grammar rules. Instead, you simulate learning your mother tongue, using it, so to speak as a learning turbo.
The method is best suited for students because you can divide the steps optimally between classroom instruction and learning at home. Activities mainly take place in school ― speaking, reading, grammar exercises, deepening knowledge. At home, students can thoroughly prepare for the lesson, learn ahead, relearn and repeat. All they need is foreign language texts. Texts from textbooks that are used later in class are ideally suited for this purpose. In addition to the texts, there are usually audio recordings on a CD or as an mp3 download. Foreign language teaching is, therefore, an optimal prerequisite for the use of the Birkenbihl Approach!
Today we want to show you how pupils use the Birkenbihl Approach most effectively ― for good pupils who want to learn even more (like my cousin) and for pupils who have some catching up to do and have a hard time in school.
How Pupils Make Optimum Use of the Birkenbihl Approach
If you use the Birkenbihl Approach parallel to your school lessons, it is essential to work in advance. For this, you must use the audio material of the workbook. Go through phases 1 to 3 before the lesson in class!
Phase 1: Decoding
Translate the words of a lesson you already know. If you learn with a friend, you can also compare it with them and add more translations to your text. For the translation of unknown words, use the workbook or (online) dictionaries. In the beginning, you have to translate all the words because you have little previous knowledge. It only takes a little time, and then you only decode new words.
If a translation into another foreign language is easier for you than into your mother tongue, or if you want to include links and mnemonics, you can also decode some words into other languages. Drawings of the meanings of words are, of course, also allowed.
Phase 2: Karaoke Listening
To do this, use the listening material for the course. The order of the learning process in schools is usually unsuitable, as teachers often require speaking a foreign language from the very first lesson. But how do you know how to pronounce words if you’ve never heard them before? Children first hear their language for months before they make their first attempts at speaking. In the beginning, you make mistakes, which you usually correct yourself later. So listen to the lessons several times and read the decoding until you know the meaning of the words and the pronunciation.
Phase 3: Background Listening
By repeatedly listening to the foreign language in the background, you acquire a perfect pronunciation, preparing you for speaking the language in class ― and later in everyday life.
At school: strengthen and practicing
With such excellent preparation, the lessons in school become an activity. Even if grammar rules and other theoretical things like that are part of the lessons, you understand the content now, as you have already acquired some knowledge. Grammar exercises become fun for you.
How Do Pupils Who Find It Difficult in School Use the Birkenbihl Approach?
If we are honest with ourselves, we prefer to do things we are competent in, things we get good feedback for and tasks that give us pleasure. We don’t like to face things we feel overwhelmed by and which lack any fun. Therefore, the first hurdle of working with this new strategy can be a significant burden. Your child may resist. But one thing is sure: After a few days, your child will also recognize the benefits, notice that something is going on, and consequently develop self-motivation. For the time being, the aim should not be to achieve a better mark immediately in the next exam but to increase motivation and gain a certain familiarity with the foreign language. So dear parents: Hang in there.
The student then goes back 3 lessons and translates the words of the previous lessons word by word. Doing this, the pupil quickly catches up with the subject matter. Just 10 minutes a day helps enormously! Once the lessons dealt with at school have been made up, it is advisable to “discover” one or two lessons in advance. With this preparation, students are prepared for the lessons and have more fun in the classroom. The lesson then becomes an exercise ― to train pronunciation, to truly understand grammar and to be able to put it into practice. It is fun, and it motivates them to continue and learn. Save yourself expensive tuition!
Additional exercise: speak in chorus.
Listen to a known text and talk with the audio “in chorus.” This step helps you to strengthen your knowledge of word meanings and grammar and refines your pronunciation.
The effect: things that you practice well can then be performed more confidently, i.e. speaking, becomes easier after this exercise. This exercise also works if you practise speaking in your mind, i.e. only speak in thought. Use also feelings and pictures for guiding. Put yourself in the speaker’s place; visualize the pictures of the story in front of you.
Practise with Listening Comprehensions, Films and Series
Watching a series is fun for all students. In connection with the foreign language, this can be an excellent incentive to continue learning. Experience has shown that there is little resistance from young learners here.
A Movie or series can be an excellent introduction to learning: watch a 20-minute series, then decode a textbook text. The brain prepares and dives into the world of the foreign language. Or you work entirely with the text of a series or a film. The scripts for the films are usually on the Internet. They can first be decoded independently, á la Birkenbihl. Then you have the reward of watching the film or series.
The biggest problem when learning a language through watching movies and television series is the speed of the audio, especially at the beginning. It’s simply too fast; the pupils can’t follow and don’t understand very much, if anything at all. Brain-Friendly offers a solution for this.
Brain-Friendly.com has developed Birkenbihl language courses based on a funny series. You watch the show, and a two-line text (similar to a subtitle) appears at the bottom of the screen. This text is the decoding: above the foreign language, below the word-for-word translation into English. Parallel to the visual, the word pair lights up ― like in karaoke singing. So the student can read the text very well. The speed can be adjusted. So you use a slower speed at the beginning, then you can increase it to the original speed.
Radio and Your Favourite Song
The same works with songs, by the way. The lyrics can be decoded themselves and then listened to in an endless loop. It’s lots of fun, and you find out what the songs are really about. In many cases, they want to say something completely different than one would initially assume. (More tips on learning with music are here: Learning is Fun ― Learn a Language by Listening to Music.
Following a programme from a foreign radio station can also help to improve listening comprehension considerably. For example, you can recommend your child to choose a French, Spanish or German language channel suited to their musical taste. Due to the possibility of Internet radio, the selection is so vast that almost every young person should find a suitable programme.
The 3 Best Reasons to (Pre-)Learn as a Student with the Birkenbihl Approach
1. Brain-Friendly Learning Steps
First, immerse yourself in the foreign language of choice, then learn the rules. Those who do not learn grammar do not know the corresponding grammatical terms. However, those who learn at school or for a particular type of certification, where these terms are important, won’t learn them with the Birkenbihl Approach. The good news is that the lessons are full of grammar rules. Students, therefore, use the Birkenbihl Approach at home as preparation and to repeat and strengthen. In class, when discussing grammar, students can do very well and truly understand the rules. Now that the content of an example sentence is understood, the rules make sense.
2. Experience of Success in Classrooms
If you traditionally learn vocabulary, for example, Dog=Hund, then you have the feeling that you have learned this word. (It would go beyond the scope of this article to explain why this is a deceptive feeling.) Vocabulary trainer apps additionally support this positive feeling by giving points for each correctly translated term. If you use the Birkenbihl Approach, it works differently. Just because you understand a single word doesn’t mean you win anything. But the feeling of success comes when you understand a whole sentence or text. This happens for pupils in class: While other children get tired of single words and try to understand the teacher’s instruction, the child who uses the Birkenbihl Approach can answer intuitively and automatically. The difference is that the brain does not “depend” on individual terms, but learns, understands and reacts holistically. The exercise makes the master: The more often the child uses the Birkenbihl Approach at home, the easier it is to use the language in class. The lessons become games and exercises ― to strengthen and expand their skills.
3. Thinking in the Foreign Language
If you learn a vocabulary pair, such as “Messer-knife,” the brain must always translate first when using a foreign language. Only then you can decipher the meaning of the whole sentence and then you can react. You’ll notice, it just takes too long. The Birkenbihl Approach avoids this problem. By learning in whole sentences, you always have a whole sentence, “ready.” You don’t have to think about what “knife” means in German but use the term intuitively. You think in the foreign language right from the start. This level is challenging to attain with traditional school teaching. Pupils are engaged far too little with the language (this is, of course, due to the limited time they spend in class, but also to the lack of motivation to do more at home). Only those who study a foreign language at university or use a foreign language daily at work begin to think in the language and thus use it automatically. The Birkenbihl Approach shortens this process. Pupils can also immerse themselves in the foreign language within a short time and learn it sustainably.