The ULAT (Universal Language Acquisition Tool) offers online Spanish, French, and English courses that should be great for students in about fifth grade and up, including adults. Course material is not divided into years, but there is enough course material (315 lessons) for two years of foreign language at the high school level. (See my note at the end of the review about the status of coursework for a third year.)
The material is presented in nine units that contain a large number of lessons within each unit. Each lesson has a number of parts. Students might be able to complete some lessons in one class session while other lessons will take more than a day.
The course is taught entirely in the language to be learned, so the material is designed to be essentially native-language neutral. Before the first video, the courses’ creator, Steve Nesbitt, explains very briefly in print the symbols and gestures that will be used throughout the lessons, and he does so in 13 different languages. The system of gestures and symbols alerts students to what they are to do next. In addition, images with red borders indicate a sound or video clip for students to listen to or watch.
The student chooses English, French, or Spanish as the language they will study. I reviewed the Spanish course, and the others use the same basic framework.
After the brief introduction, the lesson content is in videos presented by Nesbitt in the language to be learned─Spanish in my case. This seems overwhelming in the first full lesson video, but Nesbitt has warned students at the very beginning that they will not be able to understand everything. They aren't expected to.
Lessons begin with students learning to speak the language through a natural immersion process for language acquisition. The video on the homepage that is titled “Using the ULAT in a Homeschooling Setting” explains and demonstrates the methodology.
Nesbitt uses far more of the foreign language's vocabulary than students will be able to understand. He accompanies what he says with gestures and images. For instance, in the second lesson, his primary goal is to convey the meanings of five key verbs using gestures, video clips, and his explanation (spoken in Spanish in my case). Nesbitt directs students to repeat what he says while they use the accompanying gestures that help convey the meaning. Even though he has not yet taught verb conjugations, Nesbitt uses a few different forms for each of the verbs. For instance, he teaches the verb escuchar, which means to listen. He cups his hand by his ear as the gesture for listening. Nesbitt then uses phrases with images to convey a few of the conjugations of escuchar, such as escucho (I listen) and el escucha (he listens).
The immediately subsequent lessons reinforce and practice familiarity with the first five verbs. Nesbitt uses a great deal of repetition here and throughout the course. Students will pick up other Spanish vocabulary along the way. The lessons continually build upon the student’s gradually expanding vocabulary. Even when groups of lessons target certain content areas of vocabulary, such as the interior of the home, food preparation, clothing, or giving directions, the lessons incorporate vocabulary students have already learned.
A technique that Nesbitt uses throughout this course is to line up a series of images (including gestures) to convey a sentence. The number of images gradually increases along with the level of difficulty. The sequence of images to convey a sentence is a technique used throughout the course, both within the lessons and for tests. The number of images gradually increases along with the level of difficulty. Students need to be able to see the images and gestures clearly, so they should probably be watching on a larger screen such as on a laptop or desktop rather than a small tablet or smartphone.
Reading the foreign language is introduced during the second unit after students have begun to speak the language. Writing is introduced in the fifth unit, after about 125 lessons. However, some parents have requested the integration of writing earlier in the program, so there is now a second table of contents that places the ULAT lessons in an order that integrates reading and writing earlier in the language learning process.
When students encounter lessons focused on lengthy reading activities, they are given two options. One reading will be secular in content and the other will have a biblical theme. You can choose whichever you prefer.
Timed exercises and tests are sometimes used to help students develop familiarity and fluency with the vocabulary. At the end of each test, students can check their responses against an online answer key. Sometimes students will enter multiple choice or written responses into the program, and it will show the percentage correct. However, the system doesn’t keep track of these scores. Parents need to record test scores immediately if they want to retain that information. When questions require oral responses, students can check themselves with a video in which Nesbitt says the correct responses. (If students cheat, their failure to master the material will show up soon enough since the lessons build upon one another.)
Nesbitt teaches as he would in an actual class, frequently asking students to respond with words and gestures. He is very natural in his presentation, and his sense of humor comes through from time to time.
Students should spend about 45 minutes per day for 180 days to earn one course credit for high school. Students have to keep track of where they are in the course material since the program does not track individual student progress.
If students want more help, they can access additional videos for free that run about an hour each and cover a number of lessons. Nesbitt uses both English and the chosen foreign language in these supplemental lessons. Occasionally, there are downloadable files such as the file with conjugations of 68 Spanish verbs that is included with lesson 9.9, but students won’t need any other offline resources.
The course work is academically challenging and should prepare students well to actually speak the language and to be prepared for future academic study of the language.
This is a unique resource for language acquisition. I was initially skeptical, but the more I worked with the program, the more impressed I was by it. You can try the first 15 lessons for free without even having to sign up.
Course author Steve Nesbitt wrote to his subscribers in an email on May 24, 2021 regarding new content:
I am entering the home stretch with the ULAT's creation as I have begun work on the final unit of the third year of study. Unit 10 places its focus on advanced reading and writing and provides students with two options for reading and writing. In the first option, they read my autobiography (insignificant, but the easiest subject about which I could write!), which then leads them to write a biography of some older person with whom they are well acquainted. The other option involves the study of the Gospel of Luke. By going to Unit 10, you can already see the first 3 completed lessons for each option. The others will be progressively completed throughout the coming school year.