Dora Johnson

News from the Center for Applied Linguistics yesterday:

CAL is saddened by the passing of our cherished colleague and friend, Dora Johnson, on June 26, 2012. Dora joined CAL in 1964 and was at the heart of many of our activities for 45 years. She will be profoundly missed by all whose lives she touched.

Dora was, I think, the only CAL staff member who lasted all through my years of association with the Center (including service on the Board of Trustees and involvement in several CAL projects). She was smart, energetic, funny, and motherly, and I always looked forward to spending time with her on my visits to the Center. She had a wonderful life history; from the Center on her retirement:

With deep appreciation and warm affection, CAL is pleased to recognize Dora Johnson on her retirement in the fall of 2009. Dora has been at the heart of CAL’s work for almost 45 years; she is renowned for her knowledge of the cultures of the world, her databank of resources for teaching their languages, and her passion for making that information available and accessible to all who can use it.

A native speaker of Armenian who was educated in Arabic, Dora grew up in Lebanon, where she attended British schools through the end of her secondary schooling and then the Beirut College for Women (now the Lebanese-American University), where she earned an associate’s degree. After graduation, she taught English at the American University of Beirut for 2 years. During this time she discovered linguistics. “One summer I was working for a linguist who was running an Arabic program, even though he knew no Arabic,” she recalls. “He would come in with these totally accurate lesson plans. So I asked him, ‘How do you know how to do this?’ He got me started reading Mario Pei.”

This new awareness brought Dora to the United States. “I was interested in language and linguistics,” she says, “and there was no such thing in Lebanon. Of course, there was no such thing here, either, but I didn’t know that. I was determined that this was what I wanted to do,” she says, “so I decided to apply to college and then to get a degree in linguistics after I got in.”

She went to Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, and in 1960 received her bachelor’s degree in English literature. After a short time working in the libraries and taking courses at Columbia University, she went on to the Hartford Seminary Foundation for a master’s degree in linguistics. There she studied with Henry Allan Gleason, one of the founding fathers of modern linguistics. “It was a program originally intended for missionaries,” Dora says. “Walt Wolfram graduated from the same program.”

Dora came to Washington in 1964, planning to join a former colleague at the Foreign Service Institute. During the job interview, she learned that she could not work there because she was not a U.S. citizen. She instead began teaching English at a private school. One day, she says, she just wandered over to CAL, which was then housed in the Brookings annex at 1755 Massachusetts Avenue. There were no job openings, but the receptionist said that Dora could talk with Martin Joos, the acting director while Charles Ferguson was on leave. “We had a very nice conversation,” Dora recalls. “At the end of it, Dr. Joos said, ‘Any student of Al Gleason’s is good enough for me. You start tomorrow morning.’” When Dora wondered aloud what she was supposed to do, Joos said, “We’ll decide that when you get here, young lady.”

Since that day, Dora has done an amazing variety of things at CAL, all with a common theme: making languages and linguistic knowledge accessible to the widest possible audience. The projects that she remembers with the greatest fondness are those that have involved collaboration with groups of colleagues and opportunities to broaden and deepen her own knowledge. She cites developing the network of K–12 Arabic teachers as one of the most satisfying tasks she has worked on in recent years. “The dream of making Arabic an accepted language to be taught in K–12 is slowly becoming a reality, because of the work and cooperation of many people,” she notes.

Dora also looks back with pride on her participation in the development and editing of CAL’s survival phrasebooks for refugees and her contributions to the language policy papers developed for the U.S. Agency for International Development, which examined the sociolinguistic aspects of language-related decision making. She has particularly enjoyed her work in development, including finding ways for CAL to be involved in different projects and working with staff to write and submit proposals.

Early in her career at CAL, Dora participated in a survey of teaching materials for the less commonly taught languages (published in 1976 as Survey of Materials for the Study of the Uncommonly Taught Languages, and now integrated into the Language Materials Project database at UCLA). “That was the best project I ever worked on,” she says, “because it gave me an entrée into the entire world through language. It introduced me to the languages of the world and made me aware of publications I would never have known about otherwise, and it gave me the opportunity to disseminate this information. It was a wonderful cooperative project with people all over the world.”

(When Dora signed on at CAL, it was housed at the Brookings Institution (near Dupont Circle). In succeeding years the Center was located in Rosslyn VA (just across the Potomac from Georgetown), in the DC Transit Building in Georgetown, and now it’s at 4646 40th St. NW.)



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