Many people struggle with learning foreign languages. There are some parts of the globe where multilingualism is the norm. South Africa has 11 official languages. Switzerland has three. But many of us have grown up condemned with the luxury of only having to become fluent in one (and too many of us even struggle with our native tongue). We can blame culture, the education system, and circumstance to an extent, but for anyone who has tried but struggled to learn a foreign language, the pedagogy, or teaching method, may also be one of the greatest obstacles.
Mihalis Eleftheríou certainly thinks the teaching method is a major obstacle, and he has set out to do something about it. He has created a nonprofit organization called Language Transfer that offers an entirely new, disruptive method for learning foreign languages. More disruptive, Language transfer courses are absolutely free to everyone. The courses and website are not ad supported, they don’t traffic in user data, it’s just free (of course donations are welcome)!
Current courses include French, Swahili, Italian, Greek, German, Turkish, Arabic, Spanish, and an English course designed especially for native Spanish speakers.
Language Transfer is actively seeking collaborators.
Eleftheriou is himself an iconoclastic individual. Where many people who go through the effort of developing so much material would see it as a business opportunity, Eleftheriou is on a mission to get people around the globe talking to one another, no matter their resources or background.
Finance Americas editor Loren Moss was able to speak to Eleftheriou about Language Transfer.
Finance Americas: How did you get the idea for Language Transfer? Why did you feel that there was a need? And why did you decide to make it a free platform rather than a dotcom service or a startup?
Mihalis: Okay, so it’s a freebie for many reasons. I think it’s in all of our interests that we are all more intelligent and less ignorant and more conscious, etc. It doesn’t seem sensible to me as a person to have some kind of monetary restriction to the material. So I’m motivated in a very personal way. I’m not motivated economically, beyond paying my rent and eating, so for me, this is a kind of activism, to offer this for free. For me, it was always a no brainer that I wouldn’t be restricting access to this kind of material, which I believe really has an effect on your consciousness, your awareness of your identity, and just so many facets which are included in the courses.
Finance Americas: So, right now you offer French, Swahili, Italian, Greek, German, Turkish, Arabic, Spanish—and this is really cool—English for Spanish speakers. So I take it you live in Spain. What gave you the idea, or how did those languages come about? Was it demand? Was it the resources that you had?
Mihalis: Well, it was half of my personal life story and half the voting campaign. So, there’s a voting campaign where users vote for the next languages. So I started with what I know, I almost never really planned to go beyond Spanish and English, and then I went back to Cyprus because my family is from Cyprus, and you know, Cyprus is an island. There are a lot of problems in regard to taught identities, which are really nonsensical if you look to discover your identity rather than just learn it. So, then I started this whole Turkish thing in Cyprus, teaching Greek and Turkish and you know, so it just kind of fell into place over time, and now there’s this strange eclectic mix of languages.
Finance Americas: I think that one of the great things about it, there are a lot of languages that are useful from a business and commerce and academic perspective, but then also I think it’s interesting and every language is important for those who speak it, but I think it’s a great mix. I think that it’s really good to see that how you have it, demand based on what your users want and what your users say that they need. So, it’s a free program. People can download the tracks and things like that. Where do you find most of your users, geographically?
Mihalis: In the US, most of them, but they’re spread out all over the world. Language Transfer hasn’t really had any funds for dissemination with all of us. I’m now—I just need to find somebody to work on it, so it’s a been word of mouth until now, but I’d say more than half of the users are in the US.
Finance Americas: So, is there a team behind you?
Mihalis: It’s just me.
Finance Americas: Wow.
Mihalis: Just me, which is why I look so tired…I’m looking to hire people. You know, I have a real budget and it’s a lot of work, but I don’t think the motivation should be economic, anyway. I think it’s a jump that feeds into your life so much and so perfectly if you’re the right person for it, like, if you’re like me and you just want to spend your life learning stuff and have a job that helps you continue learning whilst sustaining yourself, it’s a really long, hard fit to find, especially with coronavirus and all of that, like social time is, has been really reduced.
Finance Americas: I think it might be a good fit for a lot of people who are academics, who maybe are working on languages and maybe they’re getting a graduate degree or even an undergrad, and they say, “Hey, I want to volunteer because I’m passionate about languages.”
Mihalis: Everyone has that kind of attitude. I can do that on this side. I mean, I’m not sure if you tried any of the material. Have you done any of the courses? They’re not very complicated. Very easy to take, but if you dissect them, it’s an incredibly complicated thing to do to make it so easy. So, everyone that comes forward really underestimates the amount of work that’s involved, which is why I wrote a book about the methods, which is like 400 pages long.
Finance Americas: Is the book available? Is that something that’s for sale or that people who are participating…
Mihalis: Yes, it’s a free PDF, and also you can buy the printed copy, so that was released in December (2021) for people to kind of make their way through that, which is starting to happen now. It’s taken like nearly a year, but now people are like “Hey, I’ve read the book up and working on some classes, I want to test them on you,” and that’s happened for Japanese to drop that. so you realized how much work it was, test classes, and then within the needs to be corrected, and what have you. So I’m just trying, I’m trying really hard, but until now, I’ve not found anyone crazy enough to go into this other than me.
Finance Americas: Well, hopefully some of our readers will want to reach out and contact you. I would imagine that they would already need to have fluency in English and probably whatever languages they might want to help you develop or…What are the qualifications?
Mihalis: It’s just basically about a way of thinking. You know, it’s just a certain way of thinking. This is a really hard way to describe, possibly slightly autistic and just excitement about digging for truth, not accepting that things are true too early. You know, teaching a language, especially teaching languages, you don’t speak of all of them. Is really like something that makes you question reality. Because you know, I can say to you: “how do you say this in your language?” And you tell me that you say it one way and then I hear you say it another way, and I ask you about the way you said it and you didn’t say it like that, and then this is the experience of working with native speakers and asking them what’s going on in their languages.
“One of the most terrible, lazy things that foreign language material creators do is translate courses, which is absurd.”– Mihalis Eleftheriou
So it’s a very strange kind of relationship to truth where you have to be the one that digs out the truth and finding it in a grammar book, like: I read all the grammar books about Swahili and found so many problems in their understanding and then like, okay, this isn’t German, right? So this is in English…It’s very, very complicated. So it’s basically just kind of a personality type more than anything, obsessive, you know, and just really wanting to get to the bottom of things.
Finance Americas: I was thinking about this as you talk, because like you, I live in a country where I’m not native. I live in Colombia, but I’m from the US, and so, I’m fluent in Spanish now, but even having studied other languages, I studied French in high school and I studied Russian more recently in life, I’m not fluent in either one of them, but I studied them to an extent, and it’s fascinating to me how even going between Spanish and English, there are some things that have no direct translation, and so when you try to describe it, you’re not thinking of the concept directly, the concepts don’t match up, and then…I’ve read things from the UK that I don’t understand, even though English is my native language.
Mihalis: You know, that’s the truth. How you explain what’s going on in that language also depends on the baseline, which on average will depend on the average you’re coming in from, because you’re using that to raise your consciousness of language. So one of the most terrible, lazy things that foreign language material creators do is translate courses, which is absurd. English for Spanish speakers is specifically for Spanish speakers. You’re coming from a structure that we’re using to rate your conscience with this language and transfer it to English. That’s not going to be the same for a Russian speaker or a Japanese speaker by far, and if it is, you’ve made the most inefficient boring course, and, you know, I actually get really irritated just about how all language learning material is; like they just externalize the cost to the user, which means we don’t know how to teach. Here’s the information you need to know. You work out how to get it in your head! And it’s disgusting. Well, the last time I went on a rant about this, a publisher tried to sue me.
Finance Americas: Well, we don’t have to mention any names, but you know, you’re really right. I’ll tell you, I came across this site because I was looking for tools to help my wife, who is a college graduate, and she studied English in college, but her courses were useless, and their problem was, I think, that she was being taught by people who themselves were fluent on paper, but they really weren’t competent to teach.
Mihalis: And even if you’re fluent, that doesn’t mean that you can teach it.
Finance Americas: Doesn’t make you a good teacher. I had an employee once who actually was an English teacher here in Latin America, but she would speak to me in English, and I couldn’t understand. I said, just speak to me in Spanish. I can’t understand your English. I’m not trying to insult you, so I’m sorry. I just can’t understand what you’re saying. So let’s just speak in Spanish, and it’s sad, but I think that she had classes that were not really well taught at the college level.
“So you say, ‘oh, he’s talented or she’s talented.’ They pick up the language really well. No, that person is talented and you suck with your terrible class.”–Mihalis Eleftheriou
Mihalis: The talent should be in the teacher.
Finance Americas: We blame it on the student, yes.
Mihalis. Well, yes. So you say, ‘oh, he’s talented or she’s talented.’ They pick up the language really well. No, that person is talented and you suck with your terrible class. If you were talented as a teacher, all of your students would be speaking the second language. So there’s this externalization of cost to the learner, they do a disservice to the learner, and I’m very frustrated with all of this thoughtless material that people charge a lot of money for, people that they’re unable to learn a foreign language, and because in the Western world, people are so ready to accept that learning a foreign language is something magical and mystical. They’re not in the “in club.” Right?
They just accept it, and that’s not the case. You didn’t have these huge publishers, educational publishers doing this immense disservice to people, which is another reason why my product is free because I want you to try it soon so you don’t have to waste all of that time trying to go through all of that, and what’s more, I will dig in my heels a bit more on this, is that they publish lies because they can’t be bothered to get to the truth of stuff. Like, I’ve heard courses that just simplify grammatical explanations to the point where “you use this version of the verb of the x.” No, you don’t!
Finance Americas: Wow, you’re so right. I learned so much stuff I remember in school about, “okay, this is how you speak.” I mean, I was lucky enough that I learned Spanish when I was a kid, but it’s like the second language in the US, just like English is a second language down here, but then when I actually started to speak it and to use it in in the work context and in life context, a lot of the things that they taught us in school, you’re right. It just wasn’t the way language is used in real life.
That’s so true that you mentioned that, and I think then the people have to waste time unlearning the bad habits of things that they learned. You know, my wife was complaining of that a day because I was working on her pronunciation and she said, well, why are you doing this? I said, look, it’s going to be easier for you to get it right now than if I let you learn it and then turn around and unlearn it.
Mihalis: On the pronunciation I might disagree. I think pronunciation should be one of your last concerns.
Finance Americas: Interesting. So maybe I’m the guilty one. I’m one of the guilty people!
Mihalis: And conversely, like pronunciation comes with time. It depends who you practice with, what kind of native speakers you have to speak in to what you’re going to be exposed yourself to, and it comes with time and exposure to accents, but the most important thing is the structure. How do you translate your thoughts into the second language? Not how do you translate the first language into the second language, because as you yourself said, that’s not always possible. Sometimes you’re going to describe it like, with the Spanish subjunctive, so, it’s about translating thoughts. So, now you already translate your thoughts into your mother tongue. You don’t think in your mother tongue, even though you sometimes dialogue for yourself, though that doesn’t happen exclusively in language. It happens in thought, what we meant, or whatever, and then you translate that into English or into Spanish.
“Being this civilization with this much technology, we should really not be in scarcity, competition mode. Politics and culture keep us there and the results of it are disgusting, embarrassing.”–Mihalis Eleftheriou
So it’s a huge kind of like mental programming. It’s a huge task. It’s a big thing, and people are not rising to the challenge. This is really not what I thought I would do with my life, to be honest, but I was doing, working in NGOs and all different kinds of social work and activism, and then I was just like, “oh, you know, this can be my activism,” and it seems much more useful than what I’ve seen the NGO is doing from the inside. So, you know, I ended up doing this, but really, I don’t feel like it’s my job. The people that have been making millions should have been doing this.
Finance Americas: Well, hopefully you can send me the link to where people can purchase your book and I’ll be sure to include it in the article. I’ll obviously direct people to the site. I think that this is great, what you’re doing. Even greater that you’re making the courses accessible to everyone, and that there’s no income barrier to it, and I think that…you talk about NGOs and people that are trying to make a positive difference. I can’t think of anything more—I mean, maybe, saving people from Ebola or something—but I can think of very few things that are more important than language education.
Mihalis: You know, it sounds so harsh and so calculated, but I kind of came to the realization that helping humans is useless, unless you change them, you know? It might stabilize people from Ebola, but if they’re shit in this society to the planet, what is the point of saving us? I had a lot of existential questions about this then, and even depression, you know, `cause I’m really motivated about my role in the world. It’s harder and harder to feel good about this system, that only necessitates competition but it’s just bad for us, and also for me, it’s really important because the only thing that’s going to get us out of our culture is a shifting consciousness, and I don’t think we’re going to arrive before we destroy the Earth, but you’ve got to try. You know, that’s what I’m trying to do.
Finance Americas: What do we need? We need people to dialogue, to solve problems and for people to dialogue they need to be able to communicate with one another, and as you know…
Mihalis: We need people to come out of their egos. When you’re learning the language, you create somebody else: you step away from the language of dominance, but currently you, depending on how you learn the language, you’re exposed to so many things like how your idea of your culture and your identity was so much nonsense. More people understand themselves as something isolated and unconnected to everything else. You know what I mean? Like these things that change you from calm mode to collaboration mode, I mean shift your mind from scarcity mode. I have to go from compete to cooperation mode, abundance mode. I need to go from scarcity mode to abundance mode. You know, I need to cooperate, so that’s just kind of like two different men or shifts we have; being this civilization with this much technology, we should really not be in scarcity, competition mode. Politics and culture keep us there and the results of it are disgusting, embarrassing.
Finance Americas: It’s how do we go from “us versus them” mode, to “we.” This is how travel changes people for the better and language is a booster, of course, to that. That’s why I wanted to reach out to you. Like I said, I came across it and I said: “This’ll be good for my wife because she’s trying to learn English and struggles with it.” I think I blame to a large degree, the education that she got on it, but I think that what you’re doing is so important, and even in places like down here in Colombia; Colombia is not a poor country, but there are a lot of poor people in it.
I had a meeting yesterday with some people from way out in a very remote area where they’re even off of the electrical grid, and we were talking about the problems with connectivity and getting internet connectivity into some of the rural areas, and to be able to access something like this for people down here, because I can look at so many people down here who came from humble backgrounds, but because they mastered English, they’re breaking out of that cycle of poverty, and aside from the cultural thing, aside from, from the societal level thing, even at that level of fighting poverty, , I think that what you’re doing has more of an impact. If they learn English, they’re going to be better off than somebody coming down here and handing them a bag of rice in the long-term.
Mihalis: It really does. Sometimes you just need the tools. A lot of the time in life, it is as simple as: “Okay, I have the energy, I have the…and somebody with all of the energy and all of the’ get up and go’ then can just not find the way because they don’t find the tools, and especially for those people that really do have some impetus, it just offers something. It changed me hugely, more than anything else in my life, and that’s why I wanted to share it.
I have a little postcard that I share and it says: “What would you do with a new language?” It’s a huge key to that next step in your life, whatever that step might be. You know what I mean? It can be literally anything.
Finance Americas: It’s amazing. You’ve been great with your time. I really hope that our articles not only bring you new learners but also potentially new supporters and maybe new team members, but I’m really glad that I reached out to you. I came across it just because I was looking for something to help my wife with her English, But I said, “wow, this is really cool. Let me reach out to you,” and hopefully this will be worth your half an hour, so I appreciate it.