Language Transfer & The Thinking Method

No writing? No memorizing? The teacher claims he can't really speak the language? How could this make sense?

Language Transfer & The Thinking Method
No writing? No memorizing? The teacher claims he can't really speak the language? How could this make sense?

Not sponsored

(Puts on infomercial hat bought explicitly for this post.)

Ever wanted to learn Spanish or French? Brush up on German? Understand Greek?

Are you tired of language learning apps leaving you with little feeling of progress?

Or did you try private or group classes without being able to say much after several lessons?

Well, you'll probably appreciate what I'm about to share with you!

(Removes hat, reacting with some aversion.)

The project

It's amazing how much depth and potency one can chance upon inside what might be labelled "some random person's project on the Internet". I'm not sure who to credit for my discovery—perhaps a language-learning YouTube rabbit hole or Olly Richards' StoryLearning (which itself is a great alternative method for acquiring languages).

Mihalis Eleftheriou's Language Transfer / The Thinking Method claims that it's "only as hard as starting…" and promises:

an instant sense of progress, and an ensuing learning journey like none other!

I hadn't read those phrases before trying it myself, yet my conclusions are the same, and so I find myself completely fascinated with this method of speaking new languages mostly by listening and answering questions

My experience

My prior attempts at learning various languages include group classes, private lessons, flashcards, conversations, friends helping me and vice versa, reading books, watching television series' and movies, writing daily journals in the target language, developing my own app, making vocabulary tables, memory mnemonics, transcribing talk radio, learning song lyrics—I've tried many things… Yet, I've never encountered or experienced anything like this.

No writing? No memorizing? The teacher claims he can't really speak the language? How could this make sense?

The basic experience is: an instructor introduces certain concepts to their student as the conversation is recorded in audio; you simply listen back and when encountering a question: 1) hit pause, 2) take your time to respond with clarity in the target language, then 3) hear what their student said to compare with your response; it's important to engage in this more 'active' process of pausing and answering "so that you have your own learning experience, rather than just listening to someone else's". You do it on your own terms, at your own pace, and start speaking phrases from the very first lesson.

Of course, it's recommended to supplement your learning with independent immersion, but it's remarkable how much you can progress only by following the recordings. Trying this with languages where I already had some experience (Egyptian Arabic and German), it's not noticeable to me that he "doesn't really speak them" and feels like he actually knows quite a bit; perhaps a native speaker should evaluate instead.

My partner enjoyed the Spanish course without much experience learning other languages, which means for me that it's not necessary to be a linguistic nerd like myself to get something useful out of it.

I confess to having not tried this as a beginner, but, by comparing it to all the experiences where I was a beginner, it feels like it would have been a thousand times more helpful than whatever I was doing. With German and Arabic, it gave me the clarity to feel like I understand how the language works, that I can actually speak a bit, as opposed to considering it a giant incomprehensible cloud of confusion. Some of the framings, such as German "putting important information at the end to minimize interruptions", were enormously useful to constructing my own mental models, whether or not they're 'true' in terms of why the language is the way it is. I'm curious to continue with the languages I know, perhaps someday try Turkish or Swahili, and maybe even make my own course for Brazilian Portuguese.


The process of 'invisibly leading the student by asking guiding questions', modeled after the Socratic method, supports the student by building and refining their understanding of how the language works, to eventually produce language by thinking for themselves: for this reason, it's also called 'the thinking method' or sometimes 'thinking slow'.

There's a lot of invisible work (described with detail in the book for teachers below) involved to streamline communication and the ordering of concepts, making the experience as simple and focused as possible for the student. Following this, an instructor can move from 'teaching information tables' (which can get dusty and dry real quick) to 'meeting the student where they are and helping them across the next step'. The conversation appears fluid and spontaneous but moves with awareness of a pre-written script (more like a route), which leaves room to handle interesting happenings: 'mistakes' for example, can become useful feedback to understand what's challenging so that instructors can find creative ways to anticipate and solve it in the future without the student even realizing.

Who's it for?

I now recommend this to everyone when they ask me about language tips, but it still might not actually be for everyone. With new languages, one might learn to read, write, listen, or speak: although it often seems 'nice' to do all of them, it's better to define your goals and focus on the specific skills that are relevant to your interests. Do you want to read stories or poetry? Get hired in a specific domain? Understand family members whose language you don't know? My objectives are casual conversation so that I can travel and make new friends, which means prioritizing listening and speaking, with a little reading thrown in; the Language Transfer method suits me because, while following the recordings, I am constantly 'producing' with my mouth, to the extent that the only sounds I make are in the target language; it's hard to overstate how rare that has been in most of my previous attempts at learning, even in schools that speak one hundred percent in the target language.

Listening to the recordings, one could criticize the approach as a form of control or manipulation, where the only expression from the student is in the form of answers to the teacher's questions—no questions of their own or other feedback; there's even a notion articulated somewhere of 'submitting' to the experience and perhaps 'trusting' the method. I can see how that might be scary for some, but personally enjoy the thoughtful simplification from removing superfluous details and distractions, as well as avoiding obsession with rules and formalities, and feel grateful that the more 'broadcast-y' lesson design guides efficiently and enables an audio version that I can follow from anywhere; perhaps in the live experience the students ask more questions that have been removed to shorten the recordings… Feels like the right amount of everything: repetition, correction, firmness, and flexibility.

Other noteworthy details

Experience the audio course as an app for Android or iPhone or a podcast, or find them on SoundCloud and YouTube.

The list of free courses includes English for Spanish speakers and even music theory.

The project is self-funded via Patreon, PayPal donations, or buying physical versions of free online material from the non-shop.

Wishing a bright, diverse, and dynamic future to this wonderful project 🙏🏽☀️.

Book for teachers

I was so struck by the experience that learning about the book got my inner pedagogue excited. There's documentation on techniques designed to mask repetition, inhabit the student's mental theatre, get around stubborn habits, and build their confidence: all of which seem like great techniques for any kind of teaching.

I found myself impatient with many devices to teach specific aspects of specific languages, preferring to trust my own intuition as an improviser to figure out interesting pathways to navigate someone else's learning; for that reason, I glazed through much after the first quarter, but the initial parts were super interesting, and part of what I read is in the notes below:

I have taken few steps to simplify [the book's] content, deeming any simplification a complication in waiting.


it is this thought that we must transcribe into our new language, rather than the base language itself.
[Languages don't exist: there are only dialects, and some of those get promoted as a vehicle for national purposes, which makes it a political event.]

learning and teaching

Writing words down creates an external loop that becomes part of your process and means you aren't building affordances to recall without it.
[Teaching a language vertically is quickly tedious. Nobody makes a sentence from only prepositions. Better to tie together various concepts to enable creating simple expressions.]
[Teach common words after the necessary knowledge to understand them, not at the beginning.]
[We often already know, without realizing that we know.]


[They only know what we tell them when we tell it to them.]
[Often what looks like one concept to someone with experience is really several concepts to a beginner. Make a list of all the elements involved and there will usually be one that can be learned in isolation.]
[The learner should rarely feel like something is missing. The teacher presents one idea at a time, and the learner tries to apply it feeling complete and resolved.]
[Maintain an optimum cognitive load normally and increase or decrease tension deliberately to create contours of peaks and valleys so that the experience feels dynamic and engaging.]
[Recaps can help ease tension contours after intense learning.]

status quo

As language methods often completely ignore the language of instruction, they tend to have an irritating habit of describing absolutely everything a language does. Learners are often forced to spend too much time trying to make heads or tails of grammatical descriptions provided to them for a new language, without ever realising that the target language functions in the same way as the base language, or indeed realising it when it's too late and the knowledge can do little to spare the learner any effort. What's worse, is that superfluous descriptions run the risk of becoming mental debris that the learner is unsure how to apply. They may lurk in the shadows and raise their ugly heads later on, interfering with other thought processes (often in fascinating ways, mind!).
In short, we don't need to describe everything the target language does, and what should remain unsaid will have much to do with the structure of the language of instruction. To describe certain things in the target language which are indeed the same in the base language (without a particular reason for doing so) would serve to make our learner feel less in control than they would have with less information. We will avoid burdening our learners with irrelevant observations they're not sure what to do with, and in this way we also cue that what we do tell our learners is important.


Está rojo is what we might say when referring to the state of a glowing hot piece of metal, while es rojo, as a characteristic, would be used to describe a painted piece of metal.
When it comes to importing vocabulary, we are almost always using the vocabulary for something other than learning a word. When Complete Spanish opens with -al words, it is not so we can learn legal, normal and metal, but so that we can begin dissecting what vowels sound and look like in Spanish, whilst raising the learner's consciousness of word stress, too. In the same course, when we access verbs through the pattern 'cancelation - cancelar, we do so to highlight the infinitive and its function, to then begin establishing the infinitive as a launchpad for building other tenses. The vocabulary conversion itself is secondary to these goals. Our learner will be taken aback by all the free words, of course, but our own focus as writers is elsewhere!

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