It often comes as a surprise to me that language learning for teenagers and adults is based on learning the language through grammar and rules. Nearly all of my students ask me to teach them grammar and rules. When I explain that I work with a full immersion technique from the start— using audio and video, and that I will speak and write in German only in my lessons (even to absolute beginners), it seems to not only surprise them but also to stress them.


They seem to be afraid that they will not understand, or not learn as rapidly as through the grammatical approach. This is why I would like to give you some insight into the so-called Birkenbihl method, and how it can help you to approach a new language from a more brain-friendly angle. It will also enable you to learn the accent more easily, and to stop translating back into your own language or to the “bridge” language of English. We do not learn languages by translating or learning by heart.


Vera F. Birkenbihl published many books about memory and brain training, and her approach to language learning suggests a brain-friendly technique. It is based on an intuitive process, that we also used when we learned our mother tongue(s) when we were children: As children, we learned our mother tongue(s) by hearing and repeating what we heared, not by rules. Our brain remembered the way how the words sounded, and through repetition and observations we learned the meaning of the words. At some point, we could ourselves replicate them, using the right sound (pronounciation) from the start, and then later, we could even formulate our own sentences. Surprisingly enough we did all of this without ever having studied the grammar or rules.


Based on her observations, Vera F. Birkenbihl suggested a similar approach for new languages that we learn later in life: She proposed that we first hear and understand the language, so that our brain is ready to process the information, and that we are prepared to speak it ourselves, naturally, and accent-free from the start.



How does this work in real life?


Let's suppose that you are a native Japanese speaker, and that you would like to learn German.


In a typical course or language school, you would start with situations like greeting someone, introducing yourself, ordering in a restaurant, etc. and you would also be asked to learn vocabulary that you have to memorize, often out of context, i.e. in a vocabulary list. Some teachers might even ask you to translate, or use English as a “bridge” language to help you.


The Birkenbihl Method suggests a two-fold approach:


The Birkenbihl courses start with any kind of text, not the typical situations presented in language learning books or courses. It could be a text about a political newsflash or an article from a quality paper. While you hear and read the text in German, you also read the translation of your mother tongue at the same time. The translation is not done in a “translated” way, but instead it is done word-by-word, in a 100% literal way, so that the language you want to learn gets decoded word by word.


This way, your brain can concentrate on:


1.How the language sounds

2.How the language is written

3.How the language is composed


The Birhkenbihl method suggests that you do this with the texts that you use until you understand most of the words. Even as absolute beginner, you can start with a C1-level text.


This first process is called “active listening”


What this means for you when you learn languages: with your teacher pick any text of your choice regardless of its difficulty, and have them read it out to you and type or write it at the same time. If they can, they should help you with a word-by-word translation into your mother tongue.


As a second technique, the Birkenbihl method suggests the so-called “passive listening” technique. This method suggests that you are already a bit familiar with the language you want to learn. Put on the television, radio or a youtube video everyday in the language that you want to learn for 15-20 minutes, so that your brain gets used to its sound. Again, start with any type of speech, regardless of the difficulty. You should repeat this until you are able to distinguish separated words. Once you have identified single words, repeat them using the same sound. When you put this as a background sound, your subconscious is listening to the spoken language even though you are not concentrating on what you hear actively.


A wonderful method, isn't it? It would be very positive if more of this method was available to students, and they had more knowledge about this way of language learning, because it is more natural, and leads to better results as the approach through grammar and rules.


Hero image by Konstantin Dyadyun on Unsplash