İ can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked about what methods and techniques I have used to learn a language on my own.
My students have also asked me this question a lot. My answer was and is: “I just did my best to immerse myself into an English language environment (artificially created because I had no or very few English speakers around me). I also practised my English every day.
But this answer doesn’t seem to satisfy anyone, it seems too easy and too predictable. Everybody wants to hear about a particular method/technique/approach that will work for them. We all wish we had a magic wand, right?
Well, I thought to myself, there must be a method that explains what I did while I was learning English and how it worked for me. When I was about to give up trying to find a specific method (read: to model and patent my own method of learning a language), I found an article that talked about the Birkenbihl method. That’s when I realized I’m not going to be famous, just not yet because the method was pretty much the one that I was planning to own and patent.
So who actually created it years ago? And what is it all about?
This method was created and developed by a German management coach named Vera F. Birkenbihl. It was based on her more than 20 years of experience in learning foreign languages, and findings in the fields of neuroscience and the social sciences. This method is often contrasted to the natural process in which we acquire the ability to understand and use our mother tongue. During this type of learning we do not have to “cram” words or grammar rules. It helps us avoid stress, and shows that foreign language learning can be enjoyable and fun. The method is recommended to busy students who are about 14 years older, as following it requires discipline and a lot of motivation. Yet, the method is absolutely stress-free and perfectly suits teenagers/young adults/adults because it is less time-consuming than other popular methods.
In this article we will look at why especially teenagers will find V.F.Birkenbihl method effective. As for the level, it suits both: beginners and more advanced students. With the beginners — it helps them learn enough words and find the equivalents in their mother tongue; as for the intermediate students and higher —- it is a good way to improve their listening and pronunciation skills, while learning new idioms and slang expressions.
The Birkenbihl method is also called a brain-friendly method of learning a language. Why is it brain-friendly? Let’s look at the steps students need to make in order to acquire the language and see why they are brain-friendly.
Step 1. First, it combines text in a foreign language with a word-by-word translation in a student’s native language. Although, it isn’t very useful to translate every word and it’s totally against the communicative approach, but this can be good for total beginners who are just trying to gain enough vocabulary to communicate. This step is called decoding.
This provides the student with the needed vocabulary and exposes the student to the grammar patterns that they aren’t familiar with.
How does the brain react?
Brain: “İ don’t know what’s going on, but I feel smarter now. İt feels great!”
Your brain (the student’s brain) isn’t fully aware of what manipulations are going on, yet it just feels the new grammar rules subconsciously.
This technique is especially good for teenage students who generally don’t like reading difficult grammar rules and learning them by heart.
Step 2. The second step is called active listening
The text the student is reading has the audio track that goes with it. A native speaker reads the text so the student can listen and acquire the right pronunciation of certain words.
How does the brain react?
Brain: “İ think I’m getting ready for the real stuff”
The student’s brain will “match” the new sounds with the text patterns. Repeating this step over and over will prepare their brain for similar situations in real life, for example, a conversation with a native speaker.
Step 3. This step is passive listening.
Once a student feels like they don’t need to look at the text carefully while listening, they can try passive listening. İt means they can listen to audio tracks while being busy with their other everyday activities like walking the dog, cleaning the house, jogging, etc. Again, teenagers will appreciate this activity, they are busy with their school, exams, additional classes, training, house chores, they usually find it hard to find spare time to learn a language.
With passive listening they won’t need any additional spare time, they can combine their regular activities with listening, isn’t that great?
At this stage, students become more and more familiar with the sound patterns of a foreign language so they’re on their way to speaking like a native speaker.
How does the brain react?
Brain: “Well, those sounds are much easier than I thought. İ found out I can help my owner produce those sounds because I understand what they are.”
The brain knows how to consciously generate sounds at this point. While it’s more or less relaxed, it still keeps absorbing and identifying new sound/pronunciation patterns.
Step 4. According to the Birkenbihl learning method, at this final stage, your students will be completely ready to produce sounds in the language they are learning. They’ll be able to read, speak, listen and write. This step is called Active reading, speaking and writing. The method says you will now be ready to use the language actively. So when you speak, you sound very close to a native speaker (the sound patterns you acquired in steps 2 and 3). When you read, you can recognize many of the words you’ve already heard/read in other texts (Step 1 and 2). The same goes for their writing. They’ll know what grammar structures/ phrases to use because they’ve seen them before.
So, let’s look at the advantages of this approach:
- The brain is used at its full capacity
- It helps language learners learn a language more quickly, effectively and without cramming too much vocabulary and grammar
- Grammar is observed by your brain unconsciously, you can practice particular grammar structures if you need to (keep in mind, teenagers will be the last to spend hours studying grammar and thousands of new words). When they learn all of these unconsciously it seems more enjoyable and fun.
- A language learner doesn’t necessarily need a teacher for this kind of learning, but a teacher might be there mostly for speaking practice. Which means they’ll have more time to dedicate to speaking to someone rather than practising with different activities they are already doing on their own (reading, listening, writing).
All that is said in this article doesn’t necessarily mean everyone should learn a language on their own using only one approach, it’s obvious, each of us has different ways of learning and perceiving information, if you feel you (or your student) will benefit from Birkenbihl learning method, just give it a try. İt might work out, just like it did with me.