Our Founder

Charles Albert Ferguson, PhD


Dr. Charles A. Ferguson was the founder and first director of the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL). CAL was founded in 1959 by a grant from the Ford Foundation to the Modern Language Association to serve as a liaison between the academic world of linguistics and the practical world of language education and language-related concerns.

Ferguson was born in Philadelphia, PA in 1921. An interest in languages led him to Oriental Studies at the University of Pennsylvania (BA 1942, MA 1943 with a thesis on the Moroccan Arabic Verb; PhD 1945 with a dissertation on Standard Colloquial Bengali).

He joined the Foreign Service Institute after graduating and worked in the Middle East from 1946 to 1955, where he established and directed the Foreign Service Institute Area and Language School attached to the American Embassy, Beirut. In the early fifties he taught at Georgetown University's Institute of Languages and Linguistics, Deccan College in India, and Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

He left teaching Arabic at Harvard in 1959 to found and direct the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, DC.  While at CAL, he built close ties with international and national organizations and laid the groundwork for establishing organizations and clearinghouses dedicated to languages and linguistics including the founding of the TESOL International Association and serving as a charter member. Under his leadership, CAL developed the TOEFL, a test of English language skills used around the world.

After leaving CAL in 1967, he established the Committee (later the Department) of Linguistics at Stanford in 1967. He continued his involvement in applied linguistics through helping to launch the National Foreign Language Center and the Association of Teachers of Arabic.

Charles A. Ferguson was a man of extraordinary vision and, despite his many accomplishments, he was known for his patience and gentle reason. Ferguson passed away in 1998 and is survived by his wife, Shirley Brice Heath, four children and eight grandchildren.

In his obituary, Thom Huebner wrote, “With the death of Charles Albert Ferguson (“Fergie” to his friends, colleagues, and students) on September 2, 1998, in Palo Alto, California, at the age of seventy-seven, the field of sociolinguistics lost a scholar of unusual depth, breadth, integrity, and kindness.”