Wendy Ashby

Career Profile: ESL

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Dr. Wendy Ashby is an ESL Lecturer at the University of Arizona Center for English as a Second Language.

Dr Wendy Ashby Photo

Dr. Ashby recently spoke to guest blogger Lauren Johnson via Skype to talk about how she learned she had an aptitude for languages, how she has used linguistic methodologies as frameworks to create language-learning systems for the military, and how her parents had a role in shaping her career path.

Language was how she was exposed to the wider world outside her small town.

Wendy grew up in Utah, where foreign language learning begins in the 7th grade. Originally, she had wanted to study Spanish, but her neighbor, Joe Hull, was the German teacher at her junior high school, so her mother encouraged her to learn German. Mr. Hull used the Total Physical Response method, which is a very naturalistic approach to language learning where there is a focus on verbal and aural activities over reading texts, and he was really open to talking about different teaching methodologies from the very beginning. This meta-understanding of the framework behind the lesson spoke to her love of understanding how systems work, and showed her that she had an interest in, and a talent for, learning languages.

Living in Austria was like diving into the deep end of the field of sociolinguistics.

Wendy’s love of the German language, plus an early interest in World War II and the Berlin Wall, led her to double major in German and History. After completing her undergraduate degree she spent a year in Salzburg, Austria and got her first introduction to the world of sociolinguistics in a very real way.
In Austria, Wendy spoke the “High” German that she had learned formally in school, but many of the people she spoke with would get defensive very quickly, and she didn’t understand why. Eventually she learned that this was more of a cultural issue than a purely linguistic one—since Austria had been annexed by Germany in the past, speaking High German touched a political and historical nerve for many people. So she began trying to add in Austrian vocabulary when she could, and found this would generally help to get people to lower their guard and talk to her. This socio-cultural aspect of speaking German intrigued her, so she started looking at sociolinguistic graduate programs after returning to the US.

Once again, her parents influenced her linguistic career.

Wendy decided to attend Bowling Green University for grad school, because they had a great funding option, but she ended up with both an MA and an MATESL because her dad wanted her to have a professional backup plan, and he thought ESL would open up her job prospects.
But as she began applying for ESL jobs (and not getting any offers), Wendy learned that she was competing against people with PhDs.
So Wendy went back to school again, this time for a PhD in Second Language Acquisition and Teaching, with a major in Sociolinguistics and a minor in German After graduating from the University of Arizona, her first job was as the Teaching Assistant Coordinator for a large terminal MA Program at a Research I university. While she discovered she had knack for training teachers, her goal had always been to apply sociolinguistic concepts to the teaching of literature and German at a liberal arts school.
Although Wendy has always enjoyed the teaching aspects of her academic career, she’s found that she is repeatedly drawn to projects and work that allow her to tap into other interests. So when her dad, who worked for the Air Force at the time, suggested that she apply to the Defense Language Institute, she chose to accept a position as a faculty developer.

Dr. Ashby has had a lot of opportunities to work at the intersection of language and technology.

At the DLI, Wendy drew on her background in applied linguistics frameworks to help create online technology tools to help deployed soldiers. She was part of the Emerging Languages Task Force, where she was asked to lead a curriculum development project for the Western Punjabi dialect, which is primarily a “hearth language’, meaning it’s a dialect spoken primarily at home and doesn’t exist in an academic written form. This project required the creation of a transliteration system; an English grammar with practice exercises for students; as well as culture modules, military language, and area studies modules for incoming students.
It was a unique learning opportunity but also an intense experience, time-wise. For a change of pace, Wendy applied for another academic position, and used the summer break to do a project in Bolivia, where she conducted teacher training on using Web 2.0 apps to teach English.
All of these experiences have shown her how much she enjoys curriculum development—Wendy sees herself as someone who enjoys engineering systems for language teaching, and is currently looking for more opportunities to grow and flex these particular muscles.

DO learn another language, but DON’T worry about being able to speak the next “hot” language.

When it comes to any language-related field, Wendy thinks speaking another language, ANY other language, can only help because it helps with the ability to think critically about language.
At the same time, she thinks it’s impossible to predict which language will be important to know 5, 10, or 20 years down the road. When she started learning German, it was a popular language to know. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the DLI went from having over 200 German instructors to less than 10 in just a few short years.
As for her own educated guesses: Wendy says that Arabic, which is popular right now, is tricky because of the fact that while the written version is formal Arabic, the spoken languages tend to encompass a variety of dialects. She believes that in the future, languages spoken in countries where there is a large emerging middle class, like Hindi or Mandarin, will be among the most popular.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


About the Guest Blogger:

Lauren Johnson is a linguist and theater artist, based in upstate NY. She currently works as a consulting researcher examining humanitarian intervention and violence against women in Darfur, Sudan. A highly accomplished binge reader and trivia buff, she is always accepting recommendations for what to read next.

You can read more about her here: http://plainspokenlinguist.wordpress.com

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