November 28


De-coding foreign languages with foreign writing systems

By Laura Bacher

November 28, 2021

Few question the learning method that is presented to us in school. Yet, there are numerous other and better alternatives – we recommend de-coding or the Birkenbihl approach. The word “de-coding” comes from Vera F. Birkenbihl. She explains that you can decipher languages with the help of de-coding. De-coding is also used to learn word meanings and grammar but more intuitively. Instead of building your vocabulary word by word, you learn with sentences from the beginning, thus creating a “sentence vocabulary.” This way, you learn not only the meaning of a single word but so much more – the usage, the culture behind it, multiple meanings if applicable, and grammar as well.

We do not forbid grammar learning but recommend approaching theoretical basics as a 2nd step. Because only when you understand the words and the statement of a sentence can you fully concentrate on the grammar (rules). Now your brain is ready to deal with rules.

We have already described how to incorporate de-coding into your everyday learning. There are also videos on our YouTube channel regarding this topic. Since their publication, we have received many questions about de-coding foreign languages with other non-Latin writing systems. For this reason, we summarize the most important questions here.

Do your questions remain unanswered? Then write us – on Facebook / Instagram or by e-mail to support@brain.friendly.com. We will do our best to help you.

How do I translate words from a text if I can’t read the letters?

This may concern you if you want to learn Russian or Cyrillic but also Chinese, Thai, and many other languages.

The best way to learn languages like Chinese is the de-coding method. Start by translating the characters using an online dictionary – copy the words, and voila, you get the translation. There are many online Chinese-English translators, for example, SYSTRAN Translate (https://translate.systran.net). 

Via the Internet, you can also learn how to look up Chinese words in a printed dictionary. I’m sure there are also tips regarding Russian and other languages, which you can find by Google searching. The Russian dictionary is also arranged according to an alphabet, so there is not much difference.

The de-coding will take longer initially, but you will already be so intensively occupied with the words that you will memorize them very quickly. We suggest “active listening” (listening to the foreign language and reading along with the de-coding) for a second exercise. 

A YouTube viewer recently asked us about the approach to learning Turkish. In Turkish, the past tense forms do not derive from the base word. So he couldn’t find the modified terms in a printed dictionary. In this case, we recommend working with online dictionaries (alternatively with the Google translator). Here you can also look up words in the conjugated verb form etc.

How do I learn the pronunciation of a language I can’t read?

The most effective way to learn how to pronounce the words and letters is through Active Listening (another step of the Birkenbihl Approach: listening to the foreign language + reading along with the de-coding). Start by reading along with the de-coding. Then switch to the pinyin line after a while, and only later switch to the line with the Chinese characters.

In Chinese, use a 3-line (or 4-line) de-coding: the top row for the Chinese characters. A great side effect is that the picture characters are already visually memorized, and you even learn to read with the whole-word method. In the middle line, write the Chinese text in Latin characters along with notes on the pitch. Then, in the bottom line, write the meaning of the single Chinese word in English. Here the translation of the dialog is a support (= optional 4th line).

Your de-coding lines should look like this:

1. Chinese characters

2. Pinyin (a kind of phonetic script in the Latin writing system: It is more of a pronunciation guide rather than an actual phonetic script. Nevertheless, it is a good clue, and after a short time, you will be able to read the “phonetic script” correctly. Listen to the pronunciation several times).

3. Word-for-word translation into English (or any other mother tongue).

4. I also like to write down the “nice” English translation in challenging cases or recurring phrases. For example: 

Mandarin: 不客气
Pinyin: Bù kèqi
De-coding: No kindness
nice translation: no cause/you're welcome/my pleasure
About the “phonetic transcription” of Pinyin:

Speech sounds can be approximated using the alphabet. Nevertheless, there are variations. Therefore, I recommend working with audio recordings from the beginning to learn the correct pronunciation. If you want, you can also look at the pronunciation rules, which you can find online for any language. For all languages, there is also a “phonetic transcription.” These are:

  • Pinyin (Latin “phonetic transcription” with tones) for Chinese
  • the Hepburn transcription for Japanese 
  • Or the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) for Russian, which is also used for other languages. 
  • Some languages also have facilitating additions for pronunciation, such as vocalized texts in Arabic.

How do I de-code foreign language words that are not translatable?

Foreign languages often use particles (“appendages” to words) that are not translatable into English. These include languages such as Korean, Turkish, Hungarian, Finnish, Chinese, etc.

In Chinese, for example, there are counting words:
In German, we say, "One person."
In Chinese, we say, "One gè person" (一个人, Pinyin: yī gè rén).

There are also many particles in Japanese. There, particles are auxiliary grammatical words – but often a pain for Japanese learners. Nevertheless, the little words are indispensable when it comes to determining the correct meaning of a sentence.

Examples from Japanese:

Anata ga ii desu.
Anata de ii desu.

The first sentence (ga) says that only this applicant is considered for the job. The second sentence (de) signals that there would be better candidates, but that one is satisfied with this applicant.

Ano hito wa Meyer-san desu.
Ano hito ga Meyer-san desu.

he first sentence (wa) presupposes the question “Who is that person there?” and answers with the information that his name is Mr. Meyer and not, for example, Mr. Schmidt or Mr. Tanaka. The crucial information comes after wa. In the second case (ga), the question “Which person is Mr. Meyer?” precedes the question, and the answer is that that person is the Meyer in question. The crucial information precedes ga.

Admittedly, these rules around particles seem very complicated at first sight, especially when one’s native language cannot provide a direct translation for them.

De-coding shows where which particles stand. This way, you memorize the sentence order better. Moreover, by this de-coding, you learn the vocabulary, and you can also form new sentences, and with a bit of courage, you can also dare small experiments. 

We recommend: Write the particles untranslated in the de-coding line. The more example sentences you learn with the particle, the easier it will be to use and understand them. (Or: If you know a translation into another foreign language that uses similar or identical particles, write it down in the de-coding line).

Examples from Chinese:
Mandarin噢,我 明白了.
Pinyinō, wǒ míngbái le.
De-codingOh, I understand le.
MeaningOh, I understand.

Pinyinyī gè rén
De-codingone gè person
MeaningOne person

Pinyinyī suǒ fángwū
De-codingOne suǒ building
MeaningOne building

PinyinWǒ kěyǐ ma?
De-codingI can ma?
MeaningMay I?

PinyinNǐ kàn dé tòu ma?
De-codingYou see get permeate ma?
MeaningDo you still see through it?

How do I translate endings and variations of verbs?

First, translate a sentence word-for-word into the basic form suggested by the translator (preferably an online dictionary). After that, reread the sentence. For example, consider how you could adjust the translations (de-codings) to get slightly “nicer” English? This de-coding in sentence context takes some practice at first, but you’ll get better at it over time.

Tip: Are you already learning or mastering several languages? Then de-code words into other languages where it makes sense. Often you cannot translate words and endings into your mother tongue – but perhaps into another language you know?

RussianМеня зовут павел.
TranscriptionMenya zovut Pavel.
De-codeMe calling-they Pavel.
MeaningI am called Pavel.

Russianпришли́ де́вушки в ле́с, стали собира́ть грибы́.
TranscriptionPrischli djewuschki w ljes, stali sobirat’ griby.
De-codeAre-came the girls in the forest, started to-gather mushrooms.
MeaningThe girls came to the forest and started to pick mushrooms.

Russianви́дит стои́т избу́шка.
TranscriptionWidit stoit isbuschka.
De-codeThey-see it-stand a-wooden-hut.
MeaningThey see a wooden hut standing.

How a language is structured – whether foreign writing system or not – becomes visible through de-coding. This process is fascinating and continuously motivates to dive deeper into the foreign language.

Would you like to learn more? Then, visit our webshop, Brain-Friendly.com!

Laura Bacher

About the author

Laura has been a big fan of foreign languages since her childhood. She grew up bilingual - English and German - and through international vacations, she got a taste of many other languages.

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