Review: Language Transfer
Language Transfer is one of those projects that represent the Internet at its best: a passionate individual (Mihalis Eleftheriou) and a community of volunteers creating free learning resources for the whole world. Mihalis may well become known as the Sal Khan of language learning, but unlike the well-endowed Khan Academy, the project is entirely funded through small donations, primarily via Patreon.
The LT courses are audio lessons. Mihalis interacts with a student. As you listen, you pause at relevant points to provide your own answer, then compare it with the student’s (and, if different, with Mihalis’ response). There are courses of different degrees of completion in French, Swahili, Italian, Greek, German, Turkish, Arabic, Spanish, and English (for Spanish speakers).
In effect, a 10 minute audio file may take you 15-20 minutes to complete. I don’t recommend listening to these courses in the background. They deserve your undivided attention. The courses are carefully edited, so it never feels like you’re wasting time.
I’ve completed the 90 track “Complete Spanish” course and can say that, of all the language learning resources I’ve used in the last year (Duolingo, Lingvist, Mango, and various books), it’s been the most helpful one in helping me understand the language rather than just memorizing words or attempting to intuit rules on my own.
Seeing the connections
Learning a language primarily through memorization can be frustrating. It takes forever to feel like you’re making progress, and irregularities can quickly break your memorization patterns. Instead, Mihalis’ approach is to help you see the connections between languages, and the rules and patterns within them.
This can provide immediate payoff. For example, in the “Complete Spanish” course, Mihalis spends some time early on showing how, in thousands of cases, Spanish words can be constructed from English ones that share the same Latin origin. Rather than spending a lot of time building the initial vocabulary, Mihalis then uses many of these words to construct the first sentences.
Where possible, he explains why exceptions and irregularities exist: vowels that got swallowed over time, words that were transferred into Spanish from a different language like Arabic or Greek, accents that help to avoid ambiguity. He also points out negative language transfer—cases where we may be tempted to mistakenly use rules we’re familiar with. Listen to this example:
Advice like this is incredibly helpful and often omitted in other learning resources. Similarly, Mihalis adds important context about the regional differences (“you may hear it said this way, or that way”). When dealing with difficult parts of the language, like the subjunctive in Spanish, he helpfully reminds us that these are the exciting moments of learning a language: when you become able to express something in a wholly new way.
What’s so powerful about this approach is that it reflects the reality of how languages have spread and developed over time, through human migration, trade, conquest, and local customs. Seeing the connections between languages like English, Spanish and Arabic makes it easier to recognize jingoism and cross-cultural prejudices for what they are.
I recommend Language Transfer without any reservations, by itself or as a companion to other learning resources. You can play the audio files on the site or download them, including via official .torrent files (here’s the Spanish one). And if you get value out of it, consider making room in your donations budget for a monthly gift.