5 stars
Excellent free resource for learning a language instead of memorizing it

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.

5 stars
A beautiful coming-of-age story

This story of a year in the life of Jason Taylor, a thirteen-year-old English boy, is one of David Mitchell’s most down-to-Earth books, subtle but not simple. Full of beautiful vignettes and aphorisms (Taylorisms?), Black Swan Green is at times to funny and evocative that it made me laugh out loud while reading. The year is 1982, Great Britain is about to enter the Falklands War, and Jason is a stammering, confused kid who writes poetry and is trying to make sense of his world.

David Mitchell can’t quite resist sometimes pushing Jason Taylor aside and taking over in his own voice, causing dissonant ripples in the story’s flow. But when Jason’s voice comes through loud and clear, Mitchell succeeds in revealing the timeless sense of wonder behind the papier-mâché mask of our adulthood. 4.5 out of 5 stars, rounded up.

Section 31: Abyss (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine)
3 stars
An entertaining DS9 novel that doesn't quite deliver on its intriguing premise

Abyss, published in 2001, is the third novel of the “DS9 relaunch”, a series of books and comics that continue the story of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine beyond the excellent television series, which ended after 176 episodes in 1999.

Abyss focuses on Doctor Julian Bashir’s continued entanglements with the mysterious and amoral intelligence agency that calls itself “Section 31”. In a galaxy where many planets, including Earth, have chosen the path of cooperation through the United Federation of Planets, Section 31 claims to quietly do the Federation’s “dirty work” necessary to keep the peace—even if it involves mass murder.

Section 31 recruits Bashir on a mission to subvert a secret base run by a genetically enhanced scientist like himself. (Bashir, for his part, hopes to also collect information to take down Section 31.)

In Star Trek’s alternative history of Earth, genetic engineering ultimately led to the Eugenics Wars, where enhanced “superhumans” nearly destroyed the planet. After the wars, genetic enhancement became taboo, and those who (like Bashir and his adversary) live with such enhancements are regarded with suspicion.

Bashir tried to use his talents for good, while his opponent appears to more interested in using his expertise to breed an army of super-soldiers and take on the Federation.

The premise is interesting enough, and much of the story is quite captivating. Unfortunately, the book loses steam in its final third. Neither Section 31 nor Bashir’s confrontation with his enemy really get the space they deserve. Instead, the book spends a bit too much time on an Avatar-style subplot of an oppressed local population, and on Ro Laren (who is DS9’s security officer in the relaunch, and a part of Bashir’s team for the mission) being angry.

Bashir fans will likely still enjoy this novel, and it integrates nicely into the DS9 relaunch series. Personally, I would give it 3.5 out of 5 stars, rounded down—a solid premise, well-paced, but limited resolution and payoff.

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