Languages and Linguistics Department History

Two Students Walking Under Welcome Banner

This network believes that the history of an institution gives those affiliated with it a sense of connection to administration, faculty, and students who have contributed to its development. With this connection we believe that members will have a greater appreciation for their role and the continuity they provide in the chain of events.

Three Decades of Linguistics at SJSU: Local and Global Challenges


Thirty years ago, the first M.A. degree in Linguistics was awarded at SJSU. Over the three decades since then, the fledgling program has grown into a department that this year has more than twenty graduates of three degree programs: a B. A. and an M.A. in linguistics and an M.A. in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). These graduates join a community of language professionals around the world who have addressed both local and global language challenges.

Local challenges were the focus of the early linguistics courses offered at SJSU in the 1950s and 60s as part of teacher education programs for our local public schools. For many teachers, these introductory linguistics classes were the only ones to address language used by public school students who spoke something other than standard English. Many who took such classes experienced moments of self-discovery -- becoming conscious of the systematic nature of their own dialects, languages and codeswitching.

Bilingual students became fascinated with questions surrounding language acquisition. One of those was Lily Wong Fillmore, now a professor of education at Berkeley. While still working on an interdisciplinary undergraduate degree in linguistics here in the 1960s, Lily began the first Head Start program in the county, addressing language issues facing migrant pre-school children from Spanish-speaking homes. As a graduate student at Stanford, she went on to do research on the acquisition of English by Spanish-speaking children in Watsonville, where she herself as an immigrant child had spoken Chinese, Spanish, and English.

In the late 1960s, linguistics courses began to take on a more global focus with the addition of new faculty. A summer program to train Peace Corps volunteers for the Philippines was held at SJSU, and two of its teachers were hired to teach in the English Department here: Estrella Calimag, a native of the Philippines, and Philip Cook, whose wife Letty was also a native. They joined professors from several departments who offered an interdisciplinary major in linguistics to a few students. These early professors were Edith Trager and Don Alden from English, Kingsley Noble from Anthropology, Mike Schmidt from Philosophy, and others from various foreign language programs. By 1970, the faculty who had been working informally together with individual students had gained approval for a graduate degree program in linguistics and hired two faculty members specifically for that program: John Lamendella, a new Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, and Rebecca Agheyisi, a native of Nigeria completing her dissertaion on West African Pidgin English at Stanford.

I can still remember the excitement of seeing the announcement for the new degree program, which offered a course in Yoruba, a language spoken in West Africa. In the introductory course with Edith Trager, I had already learned about the creole, Gullah, spoken in my native South Carolina and had written a short paper on it. Edith had lent me her own copy of Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect by Lorenzo Dow Turner, which I devoured, so I knew that the opportunity to learn Yoruba (as one of the languages contributing to the structure of Gullah) was not to be missed. When I walked into Rebecca Agheyisi's first class, I felt at home. For two years I studied Yoruba and took my first sociolinguistics class with her. Scholarly work on a subject that resonated with my own life became a possibility -- as it has for so many of the students who have gone through the program here. She helped me get admitted to the Linguistics Program at Stanford, where Charles Ferguson taught a course on creole languages in the first semester I was there, thus linking my personal interest in a local language spoken in my backyard with the global phenomenon of creole languages around the world.

My former classmates in the SJSU linguistics program have also used their SJSU degree to pursue local and global interests related to language. Chieko Nakazato, now retired as a professor of English at Chiba University in Japan, has spent her professional life incorporating spoken English into the curriculum in Japanese education. Another classmate, Graham Thurgood, obtained his Ph.D. at UC-Berkeley and has done research on the Chamic languages of Vietnam. Today he chairs the Linguistics Program at CSU-Chico in California. A fourth, Doug Adamson, taught English in Spain and then did a Ph.D. at Georgetown University, with research on applied linguistics; he is now on the English faculty at the University of Arizona. Another student who finished her M.A. here two years after we did is probably the most famous graduate: Amy Tan. Through her novels about conflicts between immigrant parents and their Americanized children, she has touched the lives of many immigrant families. If you look carefully at the dialogue in The Joy Luck Club and at her essay "Mother Tongue," you will understand how her study of linguistics has informed her understanding of the frequent role reversals between parent and child, as the child negotiates telephone and interview exchanges for the parent in the English-speaking world.

By the end of the seventies, the attention of the Linguistics Program had once again turned to local challenges, this time within the university itself, as great numbers of immigrants began attending SJSU because of changes in immigration laws coupled with the fall of Saigon. In 1979, when the English Department began offering a remedial composition program for what it thought would be mostly Chicano and Black students, faculty found, instead, large numbers of second language students in their classes. By the mid 1980s, one third of all SJSU students spoke a language other than English as a child. The majority of linguistics M.A. students were now taking a concentration in TESOL to prepare themselves for teaching ESL classes in local community colleges and language schools abroad. Some continued to pursue theoretical linguistics and to enter Ph.D. programs, while still others began working in the growing computer-based industries in Silicon Valley. A few taught languages like Chinese and Japanese in local colleges or in Saturday heritage language classes for children.

By 1990 the scope of the university's ESL challenge became so obvious that faculty and administration began to talk about establishing a Department of Linguistics and Language Development that would address this issue, and in 1991 such a department was born. Faculty joined from the old linguistics program, the English department, and the College of Education, and four new members were hired specifically for their expertise in TESOL: Martha Bean, B. Kumaravadivelu, Peter Lowenberg, and Denise Murray. A new M.A. degree was created in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. In addition to the degree programs, the new department was given responsibility for teaching all freshmen students placing below a certain score on the statewide English Placement Test -- about half of whom spoke English as a second language. The LLD faculty decided to mix native and non-native speakers in these classes, which were re-named Academic English in order to give equal emphasis to both reading and writing skills. The thinking was that native and non-native speakers alike would benefit from this joint language experience. Creating the Language Development Center and devising curriculum for it and the classes challenged faculty and students alike. Graduate students were soon tutoring and later teaching in the Academic English program. Many of our finest teachers in LLD today have an M.A. in TESOL from the department, having learned on the job how to apply what they were learning in classes -- and then helping to train later generations of students to do the same. Academic English classes for upper division transfer students were added, as the university began to address language challenges at every level. In addressing the local ESL challenge within the university, where over than 50% of students are now non-native English speakers, we have learned that we share this challenge with local community college where many of our graduates now teach. Some teach at both SJSU and at community colleges, as well as in the pre-college program at SJSU known as Studies in American Language (SAL). A handful of our graduates also teach in the public school and many in adult education programs, thus providing continuity in language development classes for immigrants who enter the country at any age.

At the height of the dot.com boom during the 90s, a number of linguistics B.A. and M.A. majors used their linguistic skills in high tech industries, even while they were attending school. Today, with the slowdown in the economy, those positions are not as plentiful. The swing back and forth between theoretical and applied linguistics is a long-standing one and a healthy one -- just as is the swing back and forth between local and global language issues. Today, graduates in LLD are prepared to learn how to cope with whatever new challenge comes their way. Note the word LEARN. They have learned here how to learn what they need to know. We cannot predict what kinds of jobs they will find themselves in, or what exactly they will need to know. If past experience is any guide, they will choose some local issue that touches their hearts and see in it the global implications. Whatever they end up doing will be a surprise, both to them and to us. Linguistics is not a predictable field -- and that is part of its joy.

~by Pat Nichols,Professor Emerita SJSU

Studies in American Language: A Connection to LLD and San José State University

In spring 1975, Studies in American Language (SAL) began as a teacher-training program for Linguistic majors who were completing Master Degrees. At this time, the program had no official title, and students came to the U.S. under a contract with International Language Services (ILS) and a major Japanese newspaper company. The curriculum was specifically tailored to the needs of Japanese students who wanted to have an American cultural experience while improving their English skills before returning to colleges in their own country. In 1977, while continuing the JELI (Japanese-English Language Institute) contract as a separate program, SAL was established as a non-contract program to accommodate students from all countries who wished to pursue academic degrees in U.S. colleges and universities. The curriculum design for this program focused on improving students' research and writing of term papers, expanding academic as well as general vocabulary, and improving university reading skills. The curriculum included U.S. culture, understanding the U.S. university system and how to succeed in the U.S. university environment.

In the latter part of 1979, a committee headed by Dr. John Galm, chair of the English Department, was established to review the program and to establish the criteria for hiring full time and part time teachers. The goal of this committee was to develop a teaching department within the school of Continuing Education. In the fall of 1980, the Japanese contract ended and all students enrolled independently as SAL students from that time on. There were 4 levels that ranged from a basic 350 TOEFL (the minimum score required to enroll) to advanced (480+ TOEFL), and the enrollment fluctuated between 40-90 students.

At this time a nationwide search was conducted, and 6 full-time Instructors were hired as Lecturers. The administration consisted of a director, an administrative coordinator, and academic coordinator, a fiscal officer and an officer manager. Under the direction of the coordinators, the faculty re-organized the program curriculum into Listening & Speaking, Writing & Grammar, Reading & Vocabulary. These classes were described in a set of in-house prepared Guidelines, which set out the 4 levels with descriptors and sequenced the language skills through these levels.

As the program grew and the student needs changed, the faculty re-wrote these Guidelines to accommodate 8 levels. The basic level became very different because SAL eliminated the 350 TOEFL requirement and asked instead that the students have a high school diploma and be 18 years of age. These classes now ranged from basic to intermediate in levels and remained divided into the Listening & Speaking, Writing & Grammar, Reading & Vocabulary. More suitable "false-beginner" materials were selected to supplement those used previously. The advanced level also changed as students who had more sophisticated English skills and advanced degrees from their home universities began to enroll in large numbers. These classes were divided into Oral Communication (listening, speaking, presenting, arguing), Written Communication (academic reading, writing and research) and Grammar. The materials were academic and the focus was "succeeding in the U.S. University." For example, in the Oral Communication classes, students learned to prepare and present speeches just as they would have to for their General Education speech classes; in the Written Communication classes students did research papers.

In 1986 it was necessary to expand the upper levels again and SAL designed the Advanced University Tutorial class for students with 500+ on the TOEFL. These students were encouraged to enroll through Open University and take 3 units of credit. They did this by dropping one SAL class (usually one they and their teachers agreed upon), enrolling in their credit class and turning in their registration form to the office. They were able to earn 3 units of credit without additional cost.

In 1998 the curriculum was redesigned to completely integrate the skills. The core curriculum became reading/writing and listening/speaking with grammar integrated across the curriculum. Electives were created to give students the opportunity to customize their program of study to meet their particular needs. A wide range of electives continued to be developed: TOEFL Preparation, Grammar Workshop, Business English, Web Page Building, English through Video and Film, Everyday English Conversation, Idiom, Academic Vocabulary, and Pronunciation Practice. Students were encouraged to select two of these electives in areas of interest or special need in order to maximize their language learning experience. These elective sessions were 8 weeks long and at the conclusion of each session, students selected new classes, so it was possible for a student to complete eight different classes in an academic year.

Student surveys and interviews in the late 1990s revealed an increasing number of advanced students, a greater emphasis on the need for academic preparation, and the need for short courses. In response, academic curriculum was restructured to include more non-fiction current events reading and discussion to prepare all students for university classrooms and to create a "bridge" class for the highest levels. All students enrolledl in a Current Events: Reading and Vocabulary course to stay abreast of news and topics and to develop reading and discussion skills of global interest. The Gateway curriculum was restructured into smaller components including a "Gateway Academic Preparation (GAP)" course. The smaller components facilitated concurrent enrollment in open university coursework. The GAP courses were content-based classes, which gave advanced students a realistic feel for what university classes require. In most semesters, students chose a GAP class from Business, Critical Thinking, or American Foundations. In addition, three-week courses in American Communication and Culture were designed to meet the needs of students striving for fluency in their conversational and cultural skills. Finally, intensive two-week TOEFL preparation courses were scheduled three times during the year for students who felt a concentrated effort in the skills and strategies of that test would benefit them. With these additional programs and students, SAL outgrew available campus and community space and opened a dedicated classroom building with state-of-the-art computer lab and student lounge areas in August 2001.

Higher enrollments brought a wide variety of students. Many of these students, drawn to Silicon Valley's high tech industries, expressed the need for professional business English classes. SAL's Business English Program opened in January 2002 to give these students specialized classes and special activities appropriate to business professionals. In 2002 short courses in American Business Communication, English for Jazz Lovers and Silicon Valley Business Professionals were added to the schedule along with a selection of on-line classes. Social activities have always been incorporated into the SAL program. The philosophy has always been to expand opportunities for international students to interact with North Americans in North American cultural activities. While these activities have changed over the years, they always have included a student Orientation and an End of the Semester Party. Other activities are combinations of informal coffees, field trips (Alcatraz, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Monterey Bay Aquarium, art museums and historical locations in the San Jose area), parties at Halloween with pumpkin carving and costume contests, Christmas and tree decorating, SAL Olympics (a gym-game day), and student talent shows.

While SAL has grown over the years and has come under the umbrella of the Department of Continuing Education, there has always been a connection to the Department of Linguistics and Language Development. MA candidates frequently observe, and many elect to complete their student teaching requirements in the SAL classrooms.

~Cheryl McKenzie [updated by Karen O'Neill]