On what principles was the ULAT program established?

More important than any other principle set forth herein, using the ULAT implies a desire to respect the natural means by which a person learns his native language in the learning of a second. Among other things, first and foremost, this means that a teacher will not introduce the written language until the student has acquired a strong oral foundation to his or her knowledge of the new language. This foundation will be acquired exclusively through speaking and listening. When exposure to the written language becomes appropriate, it will be preceded by an introduction to the phonics system of the target language, followed by extensive elementary reading and then finally by writing. Generally speaking, this skill of writing will not be introduced until sometime within the first semester of the student’s second year of language study.

The ULAT will never present a translation of the meaning of a word or expression and believes that neither should a teacher do so. Translation is the easy way out for an instructor, and the comfortable way for the learner who does not like to live with temporary imprecision of understanding or have to concentrate and hypothesize, but it is an absolutely fatal blow to the learner’s long-term goal of attaining fluency. Translation creates a mental bridge, often more inexact than the learner realizes, between the foreign language and the learner’s native language, a bridge which the learner will mentally have to cross each time he needs to refer to that word in the foreign language. Initially passing all speech in the target language through the grid of one’s native language results in slow, awkward speech that is replete with awkward or incorrect sentence structures. A precise understanding of the meaning of all words is not initially necessary and will best be acquired through experience with the word in a variety of contexts.

Meaning should initially be conveyed in a visual and oral fashion and in context, by means of stories, mime, gestures, role play, sound, images and, thereafter, once the student has attained relative oral fluency, by written or oral explanations solely in the target language. It is here where the full panoply of a teacher’s expressive skills must be employed. The teacher must use every tool at his disposal, short of translation, in conveying the meaning of a word to the student – generally, the more dramatic the more memorable. The ULAT’s thousands of images will be key tools in rendering meaning evident to the student. The ULAT presents the learner with moving or still images, accompanied by sound, that convey meaning without recourse to the learner’s native language, thus simulating the observation and listening stage of language learning.

Concurrently, the learner must be willing to live with some uncertainty regarding the exact meaning of some words in the initial stage of learning, just as occurs when a 2-year-old first learns his native language. For example, in the second lesson of the first unit, the student will see the picture of a man gesturing toward an apartment building and will hear a corresponding word. At first, the student will not be sure whether the word corresponds in English to “home”, “live”, “point”, “apartment building”, etc. In short order, greater experience with that word, and hearing it in other contexts, will render its meaning increasingly clear. Remember…it is far better to allow the student to experience some initial imprecision of understanding while learning a word’s meaning in the right way, than to have it forever engraved in his memory in the wrong way (i.e., linked to his native language and thus requiring the unwieldy 4-step process of image-laden thought to text-based thought to native language to target language).

The ULAT requires the learner to repeat a word, or series of words, and to perform a gesture that represents the word’s meaning, thus enhancing retention by the performance of a motor activity. This use of gestures also reinforces one’s deep, almost subconscious understanding of the language’s syntax as the student finds himself always repeating the series of gestures in the same order. In time, the use of gestures, like the tail on a tadpole, becomes unnecessary and gradually disappears. The gestures are replaced by a recognition of the ULAT’s still images, each representative of a noun, adjective, verb or other part of speech. For the representation of actions, for example, after the moving image has conveyed the verb’s meaning, the ULAT introduces the key still image from the moving sequence – the one which best symbolizes the action. This parallels “symbolization”, the mental process we naturally perform when recalling an action we have seen sometime in our past.

The ULAT believes that analytical presentations of grammar are largely useless, tedious sidetracks for beginning language students and tend to push the student in the direction of translation. Such formal grammatical explanations, usually accompanied by a chart with headings such as “first person”, “second person”, “third person”, “singular”, “plural”, “masculine”, “feminine”, etc., is comfortable for the student, but it in no way facilitates growth toward genuine fluency. Such explanations can only be “useful” if the instructor is testing for short-term memorization as opposed to the actual ability to employ the language in an authentic life situation. Let a student thoroughly steeped in such grammatical explanations attempt to respond naturally in the target language to a person who approaches him on the street and asks him where the train station is located, for example. The stranger will quickly walk away in disdain while the frustrated student is still trying to recall the appropriate verb conjugation chart pertinent to his response. The ULAT rejects such presentations as largely useless sources of short-term academic comfort, but as guarantors of long-term linguistic ineptitude.

The ULAT opts instead for drilling “linguistic reflexes” into the student during his first two years of language study. Presented in the form of gradually accelerating PowerPoint presentations, these drills require the student to express a thought within an increasingly limited period of time. The result is that students can express themselves fluently, with structural accuracy, though without the largely unnecessarily ability to explain the grammatical foundation behind their speech. It is generally in the third year of study, as they are directed to a traditional grammar workbook to polish the rough edges of their speech, that they come to understand the technical reasons behind how the language is structured. At that point, such a focus is altogether appropriate and will not hinder their pursuit of fluency, as a strong oral foundation, predicated on the cultivation of linguistic reflexes, will have already been laid during their first two years of ULAT study.

A language program needs to downplay any unwarranted initial emphasis upon the irregular aspects of a language. When the irregular elements of a language receive too much attention, it leaves the beginning language student grasping for something rational and predictable about his new language and coming up with his hands empty. Typically, thinking that such an emphasis is necessary to “cover all the bases” and that it is desirable to force the student to memorize the exceptions to the rule, textbooks and language programs give a disproportionate emphasis to these irregular exceptions and thus discourage the student, who comes to doubt the feasibility of ever actually mastering the language. As a rule of thumb in the creation of lessons or exams, the ULAT includes irregular elements only in proportion to the frequency of their actual use in everyday speech and writing.

Students primarily apply themselves to that which will be tested. If oral participation and extemporaneous speech are deemed indispensable, they must be objectively evaluated proportionate to the importance of oral development at each stage of a student’s learning, otherwise students will feel no compulsion to engage in either one. If we say that we want our students to learn to speak the language fluently, and yet provide them almost solely with written tests, or even oral ones predicated on mere memorization, we are deluding ourselves if we think that we will attain our stated objective with them. Whereas the evaluation of written work is far easier for a teacher to perform, the ULAT goes to great lengths to facilitate genuine oral assessments. See the section of this manual devoted to evaluation for an explanation as to how oral testing is done in the ULAT, as well as to how the teacher can evaluate his or her own oral assignments.