A Tribute to Dora Johnson
By Catharine Keatley
Dora Esther Johnson, a dear friend and treasured colleague at the National Capital Language Resource Center, died on July 26 in Washington D.C. She was a linguist who worked at the Center for Applied Linguistics, one of the collaborating institutions of the NCLRC, for more than 40 years and began working directly on the center’s projects in 2000.
Her Armenian family settled in Lebanon after leaving Turkey in the great Armenian diaspora. The experience made her aware of the dangers of racial and cultural hatred, and deeply committed to peace and social justice. As a college student, she came to the U.S. and stayed. She spoke Armenian, Arabic, English, French, some Turkish – plus a smattering of several other languages. Dora believed that enabling people to talk to each other directly across cultures would promote understanding and peace in the world. She also just enjoyed languages – as she enjoyed people – interacting with them, learning about them and playing with them.
Dora was particularly involved in NCLRC efforts to promote Less Commonly Taught Languages, especially in developing resources, networks and national learning standards for Arabic in the United States. This made her the “Godmother” of the movement, which she hoped would promote better relations between the Mideast and the U.S.
She acted on this belief in 2000 with a survey of who was teaching Arabic K-12, sending queries to the few schools that had taught Arabic 20 years earlier. Only two responded. She was seeking new ways to track down others that taught Arabic when the 9/11 attacks occurred. Throughout that winter and the next year, Dora, along with other members of the NCLRC, contacted the Arabic language teaching community in the U.S. to identify leaders, specify areas of need and create a plan (and funding) to support development of the field.
As a result, the NCLRC, under Dora’s leadership, conducted a nationwide survey of schools that teach Arabic. This provided the groundwork for building networks, identifying needs and improving communication among schools. Learning standards for the Arabic language were written, with Dora playing a crucial role by constantly reminding committee members of their basic goals and their importance. This inspired one task force member, Ferial Demy, to recite her own poem about “Dora’s Dream” after one long meeting—reminding everyone of the shared purpose.
At Dora’s instigation, the NCLRC funded teachers of Arabic K-12 to give presentations at national conferences such as ACTFL, NCOLCTL and NECTFL—the first time many of them had attended meetings of language teachers. Dora could be seen walking through the corridors with them, urging attendance of this and that presentation, and helping them navigate the stresses of involvement in national conferences.
With Dora’s guidance, the NCLRC started an Arabic K-12 website and a newsletter/listserv for Arabic teachers. Her last project was to edit a Resource Guide, The Essentials of Teaching Arabic, to be published on the NCLRC website in both English and Arabic.
The field of teaching Arabic K12 has expanded and improved in the U.S. over the past 12 years, and Dora has been central to this important effort. Her leadership helped identify, promote and encourage its leaders. She was not shy about giving advice, but also listened and treated everyone with respect. She was a great friend to many in the field. Before she passed away, Dora said her life will have “made a difference” if her work leads to improving the field and empowering teachers.
Readers of this publication, The Language Resource, will recognize her column, “Dear Dora,” in which she answered language questions in a direct and entertaining manner that revealed her vast knowledge of the subject.
Dora Johnson was a boon to the field of linguistics and a great friend to many. We, at the NCLRC, will miss her deeply but will continue the work she inspired.