Berlitz German and The Berlitz Diet*

„One does not need a diet when learning German, one needs to feast on the abundant knowledge available.“

We all have a natural desire to fully express ourselves. Learning a new language forces us to suppress this desire as we suddenly don‘t have the tools (words & grammar) to do so anymore. This state has to be resolved as soon as possible and not artificially be prolonged by ignoring one‘s intellectual skills and prior knowledge.

A Short trip to Absurdistan

From an adult German learner’s point it is more than absurd to be instructed exclusively in German, the langue s/he does not yet understand sufficiently. The consequences are an immense setback in learning speed and a significant increase in frustration. This most likely causes many students to give up on learning German prematurely and increases the costs until a noteworthy language level is reached.

I consider the approach to use solely the target language (here: German) a crime to reason and logic and a lack of respect for the learner’s intelligence, time and financial resources. Let me explain what happens when you learn a new language and why I oppose the above strategy used by -mostly likely- any language school here in Germany; Berlitz with being the most prominent one, but also Goethe, Inlingua and the Volkshochschule teach solely based on German as the language of instruction.

I know that I don‘t know

When you learn something new as an adult, you always first try to connect it to something that you already know. That‘s why it is e.g. easier for you to acquire more information on a topic that you are familiar with than on something totally new to you. Unfortunately we are not born with German language skills in specific so we would have to acquire it like anything else: by connecting it to something that we already know. The good news is that there are already many connections between English and German and quite a few other languages due to a similar development and common history but now imagine that you wouldn‘t be allowed to make use of these connections.

Only speaking German in the classroom should be a crime, The Berlitz Diet
das Gurkenglas – the pickle jar / Image by Ryan McGuire via Pixabay

They don’t want us to know

You have to ignore all the given and incredibly helpful similarities between German and English because… well, yes, because why? Because at that time when this hurtful idea gained currency, people believed in behaviorism, a theory that led to the consequence, that certain people believed learning a language can be achieved by drilling patterns and repetition and that motivation can be heightened by reinforcing correct answers with praise. Understanding through conclusion or explanation played a subordinate role for these people. Remember that we are talking about learning a language, one of civilization‘s highest achievements and quite a complex skill that aims at understanding. Now, how does one reach understanding without understanding a thing?

Little strokes fell big oaks

Berlitz teachers (and most others) mainly work with  a method best describe as ‘show and tell’ which is most likely the only possible method at the beginning as one is not allowed to use translation as a means of instruction. They even have their own picturebooks for this. Carefully the teacher introduces a few new words and a simple structure, practices these with the students and finally let‘s them speak the learned words before they move on to the next set of words and later on to a bit more complex structure. Not a single word of English is spoken, not a grain of grammar is explained or put into reference to the mother tongue’s grammar. The reflection about grammar is  being discouraged by most representatives of this approach.

What am I paying for again?

That means that the students are actually doing all the work on their own by guessing what the teacher’s instructions and sharades might mean and by memorizing a handful of  words solely with the help of drawn pictures in the teacher‘s picture book. Of course you’d also listen to and repeat what the teacher is prompting you. Writing during the lesson is not encouraged though, neither the use of dictionaries. I could go on (sigh). This reminds me of Waldorf-pedagogy, where it is assumed that the young child should learn through imitation rather than conclusion. It is needless to say that the latter is by far outmatching the former when it comes to efficiency. I haven’t researched on any studies yet, that prove that this method to aquire vocabulary and grammar stands out significantly from any other, justifying the effort and strain put onto the student but I dare to assume that this is not the fastest nor most efficient way of learning a foreign language.

The Berlitz Diet

Now to the term ,Berlitz Diet‘. You might see that this approach requires learning material reduced to very tiny steps and of such simplicity that the topics that students have to work through for months(!) are most likely mind-numbing and ignoring any cognitive skill one might (hopefully) have acquired over the past years. While it is clear that Goethe is not a lecture suitable for a beginner of German, sentences like ,Der Tisch ist groß.‘ or ,Ich lege den Apfel auf den Tisch‘ in all possible variations are not causing any arousal nor motivation to bother with them for longer than necessary either.

Interim Conclusion

We all have a natural desire to fully express ourselves. Learning a new language forces us to suppress this desire as we don’t have the tools (words & grammar) to do so anymore. This state has to be resolved as soon as possible and not artificially be prolonged by ignoring one’s intellectual skills and prior knowledge. This can only be achieved by making use of all available resources on the learner’s side. And one of the greatest and most valuable ressources is the mother tongue. That we anyhow always refer to, even if the instructions are ignoring it.

We are not children anymore. And even they need 10-13 years to become very proficient in a language. I wouldn’t want to wait that long to be honest. As an adult I can learn much faster and more efficient than a child. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. The only way to learn German very quickly is having a teacher who besides some learning techniques explains the German structure to you by showing you where it resembles your mother tongue and not by letting you guess the obvious, slowly and painfully. 

The downside to democracy

So why is it then that in -most likely- all language schools in Germany, German is taught in German?

Well, if I put together 20 students from all over the world, with 20 different educational backgrounds and 20 different goals etc. I will have to speak the only language that they all have in common: German. They all equally don‘t understand. That makes it the most democratic teaching method of all times.

Everybody is starting at zero (language wise). And I would want that many students in my class, because they all pay about 200€ – 1000€ monthly for half a year and with a bit of luck for another 3 months. Do the math and be amazed.

Teachers can’t be bothered!?

Then there is the teacher. He or she would have to speak at least advanced English to instruct you properly on how to learn German. While with English this might not be the biggest issue – it’s quite common among the teaching folks to be fluent in English to a sufficient degree- but now imagine having to instruct in three to ten different languages. Do you think anyone that capable would work for 15-25€ per hour? Then while having to talk only in German on the one hand seems very convenient for a German teacher and widens the range of possible employees for the schools,  on the other hand  it requires very good teaching skills and a solid self-esteem from them or all those clueless faces in front of them will wear them out sooner or later. Most of my former colleagues were burned out or at least very close to it. I myself burned out last year partly due to these circumstances and I consider my teaching skills to be on expert level. But I will share my burnout experience that led to my professional liberation in another post with you (link follows).

I think I have made my point and you get the idea of why forcing students to ignore their most valuable resource -their mother tongue- is irresponsible.

The Smarter Diet

I claim that Berlitz has become a legend most probably because they were at the right place at the right time. Please note that I do not criticize the service quality or the good intentions of the folks over at Berlitz (or any other school mentioned before). But I can safely say that they could work much more efficiently if they allowed English to be used as an instructional language and also schooled their teachers in memory techniques. Of course that would require a major change of their company structure and is unlikely to happen anytime soon. When you want to learn German, don’t go on an intellectual diet. ‘Learn’ how and what you like and enjoy the pleasures of growing knowledge and capability to deal with things in a new, exciting language. You will feel a lot better and your German skills and your self-confidence will improve noticeably. Learning German can be a great pleasure, don’t let anyone spoil it.

With these words… Much success in your endeavour.

Michael Schmitz

* As much as I would like to take credit for it, the name ‘Berlitz Diet’ is not my invention. I read it in an essay by Wolfgang Butzkamm, one of my few inspirers in the strive for better language teaching. You might want to read his article here which is going a bit deeper than mine and although being scientific is a pleasure to read.