The History of the Universal Language Acquisition Tool

The foundation to the creation of the ULAT goes back to the summer of 1980. I had just finished my third year of rather uninspiring foreign language teaching in the northern suburbs of Chicago. My results with students were depressingly mediocre. I had been teaching them exactly as I myself had been taught growing up through the public school system in the 1960's. Through a heavy dose of translation and a premature and almost exclusive exposure to the written language, I found that my students spoke French or Spanish in an awkward, stumbling, unnatural fashion. In essence, they were merely speaking and writing English using French or Spanish words. The result was a horrendous and unintelligible attempt to imitate the target language, as well as a stultifying and wearisome classroom atmosphere.

Initial insights

That summer, during a particularly low point in my life, somewhat in desperation, I asked God to show me how it is that people learn language. I mentally threw out all that I had assumed about language teaching and came up with the following principles and conclusions :

  1. A language instructor must lead the learner to replicate the natural means by which a person learns his own native language, since 99% of the world is successful at that task.
  2. The written language must not be introduced, therefore, until the student has acquired a strong oral foundation of syntax and vocabulary, acquired exclusively through speaking and listening.
  3. Translation should never be used as a teaching technique, as it creates destructive mental links between the learner's native language and the language to be acquired.
  4. Vocabulary needs to be conveyed in a visual and oral fashion and in context, by means of stories, mime, gestures, role play, sound and images.
  5. Analytical presentations of grammar are largely useless, tedious sidetracks for beginning language students and tend to push the student in the direction of translation.
  6. The irregular aspects of a language are to be downplayed initially, as is an emphasis on students' structural errors. The most important initial task is to instill in the students a confidence that they can indeed communicate successfully, thus building within them a desire to do so. Over time, through modeling and repeated exposure, and without negative feedback, once they are willing to speak, the students' understanding of grammatical structure can be gradually refined.
  7. In order to retain vocabulary and to convey meaning without the need for reflection in one's native language, students can be taught to perform gestures representing key elements of the language every time they say that word. In time, like the disappearing tail of a tadpole, the gesture will drop away as being unnecessary.
  8. The pace of instruction should be such that, in responding to the instructor's prompts, students are not allowed enough time to reflect in their native language, thus developing "linguistic reflexes" rather than a merely scholastic, analytical knowledge of the language.

MacDonald's guinea pigs

I began a new part-time teaching job in the fall of 1980 at MacDonald Middle School in East Lansing, Michigan, intent on beginning immediately to employ this approach that was thoroughly new for me. This would not have been possible had it not been for a wonderful principal, Mr. Sal DiFranco, who trusted me and gave me total freedom to experiment and create. In that atmosphere, I experienced a renaissance in my enthusiasm for teaching. The results with my students were tremendous. Refusing to employ any English or any writing, simplifying the French language to its most essential, regular elements, and creating games with the gestures I assigned to those elements, the results were extremely encouraging. No one could have said it better than did 12 year old Caroline at the conclusion of a one-on-one extemporaneous talk I had her perform as a test at the end of our first month of instruction. Completing her 2-minute talk, with a grin of wonderment at her own achievement, she said: "Mr. Nesbitt, you must be so proud of us! We can already say so many things!" Indeed I was, and I knew that I had begun a better and more fruitful track as a language teacher.

During my two years in East Lansing, before leaving for a full-time job in the Detroit area, I completed a simple textbook in 1982 for the teaching of French. It is somewhat embarrassing to read now for a couple of reasons. First, not yet having spent much time in France, my French was still somewhat deficient. Beyond that, however, one can see that the transformation that had been going on in my approach to teaching was less evident when it came to creating a textbook. I found myself slipping back into the default mode of the less than creative manner in which I had been taught back in the 1960's, inevitably leaning heavily on both the written word and on translation. In fairness, it should be added that the ability to create multimedia lessons, including sound, still images and moving images, was still years away and unimagineable at that point.

Actually, the most valuable aspect of the text was found in the Foreword I wrote for it. Therein, I laid out the principles on which the ULAT would one day be created. There is also a section about the use of representative gestures and mime and having students act out the sense of what they are saying. Sixteen years later, in 1998, when I returned from years living and working in Europe, people said to me "Oh, you're using 'TPRS'!" My response was: "What's that?" I had merely been using techniques which made sense to me, and apparently to many others, and which I had begun to put into practice during those early years in East Lansing starting in 1980.

The 60 most common verbs

In the summer of 1983, following my first year of teaching at Southfield Christian School in Southfield, Michigan, my wife and I went for two months to the city of Lille in northern France to participate in a short-term summer mission. We were there with about 40 other Americans, helping a young evangelical church to make contacts in the community and to develop their outreach program.

While there, as a means of establishing relationships with young French men and women, we began playing soccer at a local field. Every evening, the U.S.A. would get trounced by the amiable French opposition. One evening, I found myself standing on the sideline next to a French soccer coach who worked with local youth soccer teams. He told me how he took young people across the Channel each year to play in tournaments in Great Britain. They were great experiences, he said, but he bemoaned the difficulty his players had in communicating. Then, with a touch of exasperation in his voice, he said: "If only someone would come up with a class in which they teach - I don't know - maybe the 50 most commonly used verbs in English."

Hearing him say that rang a bell within my mind. It made complete sense. The verb is the heart of any language. Without it one can say nothing. Rather than having the choice of the verbs one teaches being dictated by those randomly used in language textbook dialogs, why not strategically begin with those most frequently used in any language, and then build activities around that list? Thereafter, all of my first year classes began with the most common verbs, and that focus eventually would become the first unit and starting point of the ULAT.

The move to France

In August of 1985, at the invitation of the church in Lille which we had helped for two summers, my wife, infant daughter and I moved to live full-time, minister and work in the greater Lille area, settling in the suburban town of Ronchin. Along with my responsibilities in the church, I supported the family by teaching English in businesses for the Chamber of Commerce in the industrial town of Valenciennes. One-on-one private lessons in the office of French executives in the railway, steel and paint industries did not easily lend themselves to the same level of creativity and freedom of expression as in a spacious American classroom with energetic young people, so I reverted to more traditional methods until 1990.

Life-changing friends

A professionally life-changing development did begin during those years, however, thanks to the generosity and goodwill of two couples who have played a major role for good in my family's life. Back home in the States, Jim and Jean Eddy, friends from college and from our home church, had been facilitating our life in France in many practical ways and through their continual encouragement during difficult times overseas. Jean's parents, Michigan State University professor, Dr. Norm Bell and his wife, Joan, joined them in providing us with material assistance, pedagogical input and spiritual inspiration that kept us "in the field" and persevering.

When we left for France, these couples provided us with what was to me a completely unfamiliar, exotic beast. It was my first computer. It was a Radio Shack TRS-80, with a dot matrix printer that nearly shook to pieces the table on which it sat every time it rumbled violently into action. Over time, these benefactors and friends provided us with several computers, each one more capable than the last. It was with the second one, a MacIntosh SE, that I began to get back on course in my path toward creating the ULAT.

Turning the corner

Wanting to benefit more directly from my hard work as an instructor, to work with the general public and to be able to work closer to home, I opened my own English language teaching business in Ronchin in 1990. I called it "Master Plan", a name stolen from the Eddys' educational computer applications business back in the States.

Wanting to return to the methodology I had begun to employ as a language teacher before moving to France, I began to experiment with a rather clumsy, archaic means of combining images and sound, devoid of the use of the written word, in the beginning materials I created for my new adult students in Ronchin. I created crude stick figures using the Mac's "Paint" program. These figures were representative of the common verbs, showing a still image of a cartoon character performing a key moment of the gestures I had created to help the student remember a particular action. These stick figures could also represent adjectives by their appearance or facial expression. I used them to tell stories about a fictional American family, the Richardsons, who lived in France, and whose similarities to the Nesbitts were merely coincidental. In years to come, all of these same elements would work their way into the ULAT.

To incorporate sound, still years away from knowing anything of HTML and hyperlinks, I merely described each picture in the target language, recording my voice using an audio cassette recorder. By numbering each picture and saying the number before the corresponding description, students were able to follow along and receive an exclusively oral means of reviewing the lessons that I acted out for them in class. Jim and Jean Eddy provided me with both a bulk audio tape eraser and a fast audio tape duplicator and the "Master Plan" language classes were underway.

Multimedia confusion

The Master Plan classes were helpful to us financially, and proved a great way to meet adults in our community, but financial disaster came upon us for other reasons. (Don't ever get into the importing and sale of sporting goods in France, or anywhere else for that matter, unless you have some capital to begin with and a modicum of business sense, neither of which I possessed.) With a rapidly growing family and an even more rapidly diminishing bank account, we found ourselves forced to find larger and less expensive housing in a rural region of Picardy, roughly an hour and a half north of Paris. Desperately needing steady income, I went back to work for the Chamber of Commerce, this time in the city of St. Quentin.

In the mid-1990's, the Chamber of Commerce had just obtained its first multimedia language lab. When "experts" from the lab's manufacturer came to demonstrate to us its educational applicability, during an embarrassing orientation session, it quickly became apparent that the trainers themselves scarcely knew how it functioned and even less how we might make use of it. Apparently, the more knowledgeable support team was busy providing training elsewhere in France at that moment and the manufacturer of the language lab equipment, hoping to cover up that fact, and yet still receive a handsome sum for providing training, had sent along some largely incompetent imposters to train us. My boss became furious when she realized that the trainers didn't really know how the equipment worked either. Perplexed at the conclusion of the "training session", my boss began groping for a language teaching tool to somehow load to this incomprehensible $50,000 hardware labyrinth. The bumbling technical team had apparently been able to show us that these computers could be made to play a recorded sound when clicking upon what must have been a hyperlinked phrase - the first hyperlink I had ever seen. Though I comprehended little else that day, just like the day on the sidelines with the soccer coach, a light switched on in my mind. I showed my boss my 200-pages of crude stick figure drawings, totally devoid of any written text and tried to explain how things worked with the audio tapes. She leafed through it for a couple of days before deciding to purchase some already existing and decidedly more professional-looking materials.


Inspiration at a French fry stand

Nonetheless, I went outside that day, following that first introduction to the concept of "multimedia", with my head spinning. As was my wont, I strolled across the spacious lawns of the Chamber of Commerce building to stand in line with other workers at a converted camper (une baraque frites) out of which a wide variety of dishes, all having French fries as the base, was being served and mused about what I had just seen. I do not want presumptuously to claim that the ULAT is a divinely inspired language learning tool, at least not in the sense that it is somehow greater and more glorious than the many other more professional and creative programs in existence. Nonetheless, at my own simple level, with my limited resources and knowledge, working strictly on my own, I have no doubt that God has many times intervened to show me something new that I would not have come up with independently. This was one of those moments of intervention that, if not having revolutionized the whole field of language instruction, has at least revolutionized my own daily classroom experience.

While awaiting my turn to order, a thought suddenly struck me. By combining images and sound, and still respecting the principles on which my teaching had come to repose, could I not create a multimedia program that could teach any language to a learner who spoke any native language? Could I not create lessons, replete with images and linked to their corresponding sounds, on which the learner could click and hear the word while inherently perceiving its meaning from the image itself, with no need for translation? Moreover, without needing to change the lesson in any way, by recording a native speaker saying the same statements in his own language, and then by replacing the original sound files with the new ones just recorded, I could make the identical lesson teach a new language. In addition, to facilitate any person in the world who wanted to use the program, I could use "symbolic directions", images that would clearly convey by their appearance what the learner needed to do in each lesson. In this way, instructions need not be given in English, or any other single language, and thus render the lessons unusable to whomever did not know that language.

All of these reflections took no more than 5 minutes, as did my wait for my French fries, but that moment in line had radically altered how I would spend much of my remaining professional life. I could not begin immediately in the pursuit of that vision, because I still lacked the tools and knowledge to make the ULAT a reality. I still had to teach myself HTML, how to use PowerPoint, how to digitalize images and edit them, as well as learn about sound recording and its editing. Most of all, however, I needed time.

Bringing it all home

We finally moved home to the U.S. in 1998, penniless, but 7 children richer. Our initial rather desperate circumstances in the rural "Thumb" region of Michigan were not conducive to devoting hours and hours to curriculum creation. Having gone there to help provide urgent care for an extended family member, we found ourselves in a remote area in no need of foreign language teachers. As we struggled to make ends meet, I even worked full-time on a dairy farm, at the age of 47, helping milk 900 cows a day in 10 to 12 hour shifts, just so that I could earn medical benefits so that our ninth child could be born in a hospital. That year, eleven of us lived on $10,000. When after three years in the country I was able to return to language teaching in Lansing, Michigan, after a hiatus of 19 years, I was finally able to begin putting the nascent ULAT into daily use in the classroom, culling out what did not work and seeing if the program had any validity.

In reality, one could simply describe the rest as "details", that is, well over 15,000 hours of details involving trial and error, dead ends and breakthroughs, unspeakable tedium and diminished sleep, and a growing sense of contentment and gratitude. Gratitude to people like Sal DiFranco, the Bells and the Eddys, the Grangers, the Rudnickis, the Kenneys and the Delaneys, who have given me the tools and resources which made the ULAT possible and the encouragement which even today motivates me to continue. Look at the ULAT's pictures, at least in its current form, and you will see that most of them are of me and, through the changes in my appearance, you will see how much time has passed. As you look through its lessons, you will see how much I have aged, from start to finish, and you will get a sense of how long the ULAT's creation has taken. That should suggest someone else to whom I owe a great debt of gratitude, namely my wife, who has lived through all those hours of the ULAT's creation, thus far with little monetary return to show for it, and often with a husband deep in thought and work. Words cannot express my appreciation for her patience. And, most of all, I feel great gratitude to God for having made my professional life interesting and satisfying after such a monotonous and discouraging start. If the ULAT changed only what went on in my classroom, my own teaching experience was greatly enriched by it and thus it was worth all the effort.

Steve Nesbitt, 2013