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Volume 3 Issue 6

An Interview With Dr. Robert Blair

Dr. Robert Blair, the primary author of the unique Power-glide Language Courses has been a language professor, world traveler, speaker and writer on the subject of learning foreign languages for nearly 40 years. He is a well-known authority in language-learning and related fields. The Link has been privileged to have Dr. Blair as a presenter at both of its "kid comfortable" homeschool conferences and he will grace Conference 99 as well, with his illuminating method of approaching foreign languages. We had the opportunity to interview Dr. Blair just before he left on yet another junket overseas and shortly after retirement from his college professorial duties.

Dr. Blair, you seem to have traveled all over the world -- what came first: Your love of travel or your love of languages?

A: Well, I simply regard myself as a world traveler. I have lived abroad -- Russia, China, Estonia, Finland, Central America. But I think my love of other people's language came before living abroad.

Could you tell us about your teaching and professional background in the language field?

A: I have been a Professor of Linguistics, retired as of 4 weeks ago, for 39 years. My mother was a Spanish teacher in Santa Barbara, California, where I grew up. I avoided Spanish -- maybe because she was a Spanish teacher. I didn't pick it up until I was in my 20s. I learned Latin, then French. I got into Russian -- then tried to go really "exotic" with Finnish. Then American Indian languages.

What brought that about?

A: I decided to get into pre-literate anthropology. I did my Doctoral thesis on Mayan. I then trained government employees and Peace Corps. volunteers. I obtained government contracts for the development of language training in Central and South America.

How long have you been studying languages?

A: Since I was in 9th grade.

What was the first foreign Language that you learned?

A: Latin.

What languages do you speak?

A: I have intensively studied 50 and taught about 15. I am not a fluent conversationalist in all of them. I would not want to be interviewed on Chinese T.V., for instance. I speak Russian, Estonian, Finnish, some Swedish. I speak Maya, Cakchiquel -- which is a Mayan language of Guatemala. I've written a basic course in that and in Guarani -- which was for Peace Corps. training for Paraguay volunteers. I am not fluent in that at all. I taught Navajo for three years at the University; wrote a basic course in it, but was never really fluent. Navajo is the most difficult language I've encountered. Until you know the language well enough, you can't use the dictionary -- it is a prefixing language, rather than suffixing like most languages in the world. I did get far enough to learn to do that, though.

I also speak Esperanto. It has been around for 110 years old. I've used it in Israel, Estonia, Finland, Poland, Russia. It is a lingua franca, a hobby language for me, as it is for others. I'm not trying to promote it, but it is the world's easiest language, in direct contrast to Navajo.

Why did you create Power-glide courses?

A: I'm a maverick, methodologically. From training Peace Corps. volunteers, I found there were more productive alternative approaches to language learning. I set out to find out who was doing these alternatives and having success with them. I found many people were doing many things with success. At that time, a number of the theories were in support of what the schools were doing, but I am an experimentalist. I use different things to see what happens. I've developed my own repertoire of techniques. I think they've worked marvelously. I simply thought: "Let's bless the world with this." And that was the Power-glide System. It was an outgrowth of my experimentation.

What was being taught was simply perpetuating itself. I didn't see that as successful. I edited a book "Innovative Approaches to Language Teaching" in 1982, published by Newbury House -- now by Heinle & Heinle.

How did you get the idea for Power-glide?

A: I was aware of what was out there, in high schools and classrooms in general, and I just -- as much as I respect the people doing those things -- I felt they were too narrow to keep kids interested. I went for variety rather than a narrow line of learning. I studied anyone I could find who was having success at teaching foreign language.

How long has Power-glide been in existence?

A: Seven years. Since 1991.

Is there a fundamental difference between Power-glide and other programs?

A: Yes. Our course offers a wide variety of methods gleaned from many of the finest language teachers of the last 30 years. Rather than having the student listen to a recording while looking at pictures or simply listening and repeating, I wanted a variety of engaging activities to help students want to produce -- speak and do something creative with the language.

How did you come up with your philosophy?

A: I looked at studies, attended workshops of innovators in the 60s and 70s. My book came out in 1982. Most of these people were experimentalists out of the mainstream. They were having very interesting success. There was the enormously successful "Community Language Learning" by a Fr. Curran at Loyola in Chicago. There are about a dozen other sources of experimentalists. There was "The Silent Way" a very ingenious approach to language. And "Total Physical Response", very popular in California, written by James Asher at San Jose State.

Was Power-glide designed specifically for homeschoolers?

A: It was all the methods I had used for older students. I utilized it in the military; in college with graduate and undergraduate students; with high school students. My son, Jim, thought of filling the need in homeschooling. I had not identified that, but after his suggestion, saw that it could be put in a form without having a native teacher to go through the paces.

How many people do you think are currently using Power-glide?

A: Approximately 30,000. We sponsored a contest and people showed what they could do with reading, recitation and ad libbing in various languages. It is really remarkable what some of them can do. I shared their performances with some of my colleagues (professional language teachers) and they were amazed -- especially because of the fact that this is a home-study course.

Do many people use Power-glide for one language and then use it again to learn another?

A: Yes. Many, many people do that. I don't have exact numbers, but it happens quite often, because once you have become acquainted with the methodology, the learning process becomes personalized, therefore more rewarding and the results are realized more quickly.

Now that you are "retiring", what are some of your plans for the future of Power Glide?

A: We have many projects which have to be finished. We have to do English in Power-glide, then Latin, then Power-glide created for the to K-4 age group. We are talking about multi-lingualism here, not just bi-lingualism. My dream is to have parents see that by the time their children are 16 they can know what six languages work like and have proficiency in one or two. In other words, to have a background in six -- they may not be able to go through all of the Power-glide courses -- but just enough to see how each language works, without pushing the student to go all the way. Just give them a taste to demonstrate some of the language. For instance, to be able to write a few Chinese characters, read some Russian Cyrillic, speak some French, understand the Latin basis for Romance languages, and so on.

I am just completing the Latin course with Power-glide. I am very excited. It is going to be the most innovative course of an ancient language, it will look like the modern language courses. Students won't have to climb walls to learn the language.

The Fins and Estonians learn languages like you wouldn't believe -- English , German, Swedish, plus native languages. Americans are mono-lingual.

What languages is Power-glide available in?

A: Japanese, Russian, German, Spanish, French, and soon English, Latin and after that hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, Hebrew and finally Greek -- modern and biblical.

Have you ever considered opening a language school?

A: We have talked about it, but I don't see that in the immediate future. Workshops, yes, but school, no.

Anything else that Power-glide will be doing for the future?

A: One thing I would like to do with retirement: My wife & I would go to California or wherever, to give a workshop about how to get the most out of the Power-glide materials, and how I approach languages and help the workshop attendees to get into languages, too. I'm looking forward to something like that as well.

Dr. Blair, we are very impressed with Power-glide. Many of our Conference attendees have been, too, and have enjoyed your presentations on language learning at our homeschool conferences. We appreciate this opportunity to bring your interview to our readers. Thank you. [For those on the Internet, Power-glide has a website at www.power-glide.com, where one can learn about Dr. Blair's methods, visit other countries, chat, order products, and find the dealer nearest you.]

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