By Alix Norman
I learnt French and German at school. The latter wasn’t so bad – I can still get by when I go skiing each Christmas – but the former has been of little use to me. Ten years of memorising verbs and vocab left me lost in Paris able to recall no more useful phrases than ‘This is the pen of my aunt’ and ‘Claude has fallen from the tree’.
For me, the difference between the two languages wasn’t a matter of ease, or my tenuous Teutonic roots – it was the learning experience: I was taught French by rote, from a Claude-infested textbook published in the 1950s. But my German came from a teacher who was less concerned by grammar and vocab than by a working use of the language, the experience proving to me over the years that it’s not how long you spend, but how you’re taught, that makes all the difference. And this is exactly the principle advocated in Language Transfer, created and taught by linguist Mihalis Eleftheriou.
A hot-of-the-press revolutionary method of learning a foreign tongue, Language Transfer is a product of Mihalis’ many years studying languages from around the globe. Based on his experiences with everything from Arabic to Japanese (which he taught himself one summer, from a book), the technique is based on the ‘Thinking Method’, which encourages students to cast away classroom practices of immediate recall and rote memorisation in favour of an understanding of the elements that form the basis of any language.
“It’s all about seeing the patterns in a language,” says Mihalis, a born teacher with an agile and enquiring mind and boundless energy. “In Language Transfer, the onus is on the teacher to ensure the student grasps the material, remembers the vocab. The majority of teachers just show you stuff you need to know,” he says. “Well, that’s not teaching – that’s a weather girl!
“Language Transfer is different; rather than focusing on specific vocabulary, we’re looking at generalisations, the analogies between your mother tongue and the language you’re learning.” He gives several very apt examples: how in Greek the accent is pulled back when we speak of the past, while in Spanish the accent is pushed forward when we talk about the future; the linguistic determinism of phrasal verbs; the importance of the culture in understanding a language.
His teaching methods stem from an exhaustive – and intrepid (he’s lived all over the world – Cuba, Egypt, Argentina, Spain and the UK) – study of languages and their interconnectedness with other disciplines. “As part of my languages degree, I studied Spanish,” he says. “And for three months I didn’t understand anything. Then I did something I had done naturally all my life – a restructuring of the text materials in a way that made sense to me. And within six months, I was fluent.
“When I started to do this reconstruction of language learning – establishing the principles – I looked at language in a way that requires the least amount of energy from a learner’s memory. The moment your memory activates, you’re using at least 20 per cent of your CPU (central processing unit),” he adds with a grin. “The Thinking Method is about breaking the language down into pieces, allowing, instead, for me to be your dictionary and your reference guide; it’s my job to make sure it sticks.”
And it’s a job he’s very good at: “The instruction to students is always to have fun, to treat language acquisition as a game, to think instead of memorise,” he says. “You have to forget how you learnt things in school – you never do that in life. Instead, we’re basing our learning on the way your brain really processes and learns new information. Let’s face it,” he adds, “every time you park your car you’re learning something new – where it is, how to get back there. It’s like that: instinctive learning.”
With the claim that, within an hour, any learner will be able to say thousands of sentences in their chosen language, each course totals 20 hours, spread over several days. With workshops running throughout the year (the recent Greek for English speakers and Turkish for English speakers workshops were hugely successful) and audio learning available on YouTube, there’s a wealth of opportunity provided for anyone wanting to learn a new language. And it’s all free.
“The fact that the courses are free also means that they have been developed free of the restraints and influence of monetary economics. All of our energies have gone into making the most effective and profound courses, rather than the ‘best-selling’ courses!” says Mihalis. Of course, there are certain costs to the method: “We are looking for donations,” he says. “The courses are completely free of charge – both the workshops and online – but we do need to cover travel costs, recording audio, website upkeep and so forth.”
At the moment, Mihalis is paying all of this himself, from the money he makes through private teaching. But he recognises that, in order for Language Transfer to remain completely free, donations would greatly help. “I’m training twenty teachers,” he says, “all of whom are volunteers. But as we expand to other cities, we’re going to incur travel costs and the like in order to facilitate this linguistic journey. Our wellbeing as a global community is symbiotic, a collaboration of many people; learning a new language can give you objectivity, peace of mind, happiness, which you then pass on.”
Having tried the audio method myself – I chose Spanish, a language of which I know next to nothing – I can see clearly what Mihalis means. His method of teaching is joyful, simple and effective – three adjectives I wish I could apply to the relentless slog that was my experience of French! With just 10 minutes on YouTube, I’ve understood the basics, and am even able to formulate my own simple sentences. It’s so easy, so natural. Or, as I now know, ‘es natural’!
Language Transfer will be running workshops throughout the year. For further details of workshops, courses and events, visit www.languagetransfer.org or email Mihalis on [email protected]
There are also a number of comprehensive audio courses available completely free of charge through the ‘courses’ section of the website