Would you like language learning to be fun? Would you like to combine language learning with your passions? Would you like to learn your target language without having to repeat grammar or vocabulary? Impossible, you say?
The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said: “The boundaries of my language are the boundaries of my world”. (Wittgenstein 1963: 5.6)
The aim of this article is to give you a tool that enables you to more effectively and joyfully learn any foreign language, thereby expanding your world of understanding of language learning in general. The technique presented in this article was propagated by the German management trainer Vera F. Birkenbihl.
In order to understand how the technique works, we have to answer three central questions:
- What is a language?
- What can we use (and not use) a language for?
- What does brain-friendly mean?
1.1 What is a language?
A language is a communicational code that everyone within a respective culture knows. Everyone around us understands us when we use our native language because we have, as a culture, collectively agreed on its purpose and meaning. For example, if we use the word apple, anyone who speaks English knows that we are talking about a specific type of fruit from a specific type of tree.
But if someone who only speaks English says apple to someone who only speaks Korean, the two communicational codes do not match. The Korean-speaking person will not know what the English-speaking person means to say because the word apple is not included in the codebook of the Korean language. Likewise, the word 사과 (= apple) is not included in the codebook of the English language.
1.2 What can we use (and not use) a language for?
We use our language – our communicational code – to tell others what we think. That means, we use our code to translate our thoughts into spoken sounds and written words. Here we encounter the central problem of language: it can never convey 100% accuracy of the thought that we would like to get across to someone. Hence, there often arise misunderstandings between two people or groups of people.
Example: Let’s say you wanted to tell a good friend about the last summer vacation that you spent in Indonesia. Your friend has never been to Indonesia; and thus, does not have any first-hand impressions of that country. The more you tell your friend about the volcanoes you climbed, the lonely beaches you relaxed at, and the beauty of untouched jungles you wandered through, the more your friend will build up an image in his/her mind of what your trip to Indonesia has been like. However, your friend will never know exactly what you saw, heard, felt, smelled and tasted. Your friend will never have the same experience as you even if he/she went to Indonesia him/herself.
Consequently, we can use language only to convey ideas of what we actually mean based on the thoughts in our mind. Conveying first-hand experiences, that is, sensory perceptions, lies beyond the capability of language.
1.3 What does brain-friendly mean?
Conventional language learning includes:
- studying vocabulary.
- studying grammar.
- numerous repetitions of both.
It immediately becomes clear why conventional language learning is not brain-friendly: a single word is an isolated piece of information that remains isolated no matter how often you repeat it. As you cannot integrate an isolated word into a pre-existing mental network of your target language, your brain just drops the word (Birkenbihl 2015: 196). That is why you forget isolated words after some time of abstinence from repeating them, as shown in the following diagram:
Forgetting Curve by Ebbinghaus (1885)
So what is brain-friendly then?
Brain-friendly means that you learn your target language as a network (and not as isolated bits and pieces), just as it will be saved in your brain.
How do you create a brain-friendly mental network of your target language?
Learn only within a given context. Read and listen to stories in your target language. The most natural and brain-friendly stories are texts, videos, and audios that are ordinary to the world of your target language. For example, you can use novels, movies, or podcasts (spoken by native speakers). Jokes, magazine articles and even scientific papers qualify as stories.
As long as you enjoy the content of your story, you then have some learning material that your brain loves. If you’re really into a topic, you won’t even notice how fast you learn your target language. Learning – in any context – is a fun process for the one who is able to define fun according to his / her interests and passions.
2. Decoding your target language
Now you are equipped for the following language learning technique. I will use English and German in the examples to portray how an English-speaking person would use the technique to learn German in a brain-friendly way. You may substitute German for any other language that you want to learn.
It is commonly seen that language learners translate the meaning of a sentence (or a part of it) in the target language into the respective meaning of their native language. What they miss is that, in two different languages, the same sentence rarely has the same meaning.
- German: Letzte Nacht habe ich wie ein Baby geschlafen.
- Literal translation: Last night have I how a baby slept.
- Translated meaning: Last night I slept like a baby.
What do you notice when you compare the two translations? There are a few differences that immediately stick out:
- While the English mind prefers the past tense to talk about an activity from the past, the German mind finds it quite normal to use the present perfect.
- The German sentence structure differs from the English sentence structure. It is, for instance, a rule in German to swap subject (ich) and verb (habe) when the time indicator of the action stands at the beginning of the sentence.
These differences might seem trivial at first sight. But the respective tone of both, the English and the German sentence, is unique and ordinary to the culture within which it is applied on a daily basis.
Remember that you are not trying to expand the network of your native language. Instead, you are trying to build a new network of a foreign language while using your native language as a temporary help. In order to achieve this, you have to translate from your target language into your native language without losing the original structure and content. This process is called decoding.
- Sprachenlernen macht Spaß.
- Language learning is fun.
Let’s take a look at the decoded version.
- Sprachenlernen macht Spaß.
- Language-learning makes fun.
Notice the difference in how the two languages “think”. In English, language learning is fun, while in German, language learning makes fun. If you are aware of this detail, you automatically apply it in a conversation or in writing. Your brain stops translating “logically” because it understands that, in two different languages, the meaning of a sentence may be represented in two vastly different ways. Consequently, you learn to chat like a native German.
How exactly do you decode your target language?
Firstly, get hold of a text (or a transcript of a video or audio) and leave some space between the lines. This way, you can write the literal translation (= the decoded version) below every word that you don’t know.
„Manchmal ist es das Vernünftigste, einfach herrlich verrückt zu sein“. (Kerkeling 2010: 233)
Let’s break this sentence apart and decode accordingly:
- „Manchmal ist es das Vernünftigste,
- “Sometimes is it the reasonable-ste,
- einfach herrlich verrückt zu sein.“
- simple gloriously crazy to be.”
Sometimes, the most reasonable thing to do is to simply be gloriously crazy.
Secondly, if you’re completely new to your target language, then you decode all of the words in your text. With every additional text you will have to translate fewer and fewer words. Eventually, you will get to the point where you will understand a text without having to decode a single word. At that point, you have successfully created your own internal library of your target language, and you are, from then onwards, able to widen your knowledge by adding to it without the help of your native language (e.g. by reading without translating).
Thirdly, you don’t have to write down the translations. If you love drawing, why not draw a picture or symbol that conveys the meaning below the unknown word? As long as you understand the meaning of your method of translation – writing, drawing etc. – you are building a functioning network of your target language in your brain.
Fourthly, there is no 100% correct way to decode. Sometimes you will find more than one translation for a word in your dictionary. Choose the translation that you like best. Should you not find a translation for a word at all, copy it unchanged into the literal translation. Once you have translated the rest of the sentence, you will automatically understand the meaning of the word for which the translation was missing.
For example, after having decoded ten German nouns ending on ~ste (like in the example above), you might all of the sudden have an epiphany: your brain figures that the ending ~ste marks a nominalized superlative. Of course, your brain won’t say “This must be a nominalized superlative” but instead it will shout something like: “Amazing! das Vernünftigste means the most reasonable thing!” In other words, you discover the rule yourself instead of discovering it from a grammar book.
Discovering new things always produces a feeling of success. And your brain rewards success by releasing dopamine (Spitzer 2007: 180f.) -- a “happiness hormone”. This, in turn, motivates you to immerse yourself even further into your target language.
Fifthly, for languages that do not use an alphabet similar to the Latin alphabet, write down first the phonetics (spoken sound of the language) and then the decoded version below. You don’t have to study the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) for this. Instead, be creative and write down how you think your target language sounds like.
- 버스가 와요 (Korean).
- peo-seu-ga wa-yo (phonetic transcript).
- bus-ga come (literal translation into English).
- The bus is coming.
Lastly, make sure to always use a comprehensive dictionary. If you are learning a language for which you can’t seem to get a good dictionary, neither online nor in paper, ask a native speaker to assist you in decoding your material.
Citation: (Birkenbihl 2015: 23ff.)
Let’s sum up your gains from this article. You’ve learned…
- to think of language as a communicational code,
- about the limits of language,
- about the concept of a brain-friendly language learning process,
- to decode any language.
To end with, the technique presented to you in this article is by no means carved in stone. In fact, it is as flexible as you want it to be. Referring back to Wittgenstein’s quote from the beginning, the technique shows you one of many ways to step over the boundaries of your language, that is, the boundaries of your world.
- „Was macht uns menschlich?
- “What makes us humanly?
- Unsere kleinen Macken und die großen Fehler.
- Our small quirks and the big mistakes.
- Hätten wir sie nicht, wären wir alle wandelnde Götter!“ (Kerkeling 2010: 107)
- Had we they not, were we all strolling gods!”
To cap this article off, I would like to share with you some additional readings if you happen to have extra the time to immerse yourself in. Cheers!
- Birkenbihl, Vera F.: Sprachenlernen leichtgemacht!. Munich: mvg Verlag, 37th edition, 2015.
- Ebbinghaus, Hermann: Über das Gedächtnis: Untersuchungen zur experimentellen Psychologie. Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot, 1st edition, 1885.
- Kerkeling, Hape: Ich bin dann mal weg: Meine Reise auf dem Jakobsweg. Munich: Piper, 14th edition, 2010.
- Spitzer, Manfred: Lernen: Gehirnforschung und die Schule des Lebens. Munich: Elsevier, 1st edition, 2007.
- Wittgenstein, Ludwig: Tractatus logico-philosophicus: Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1st edition, 1963.