April 1, 2020

The Surprising History of the ELI from 1945 to 1980

By Mark-Ameen Johnson and Mary Ritter

It was 1945. Americans were celebrating the end of World War II, and American soldiers were coming home to government programs aimed at integrating them into a peacetime economy. One of the main objectives was getting them into college or trade school.

At the same time, international students were arriving in the U.S. to study. Immigration of refugees and non-refugees picked up immediately, and there was a need for English language instruction.

In this spirit, the School of General Studies (now SPS) eagerly opened its doors to soldiers and non-native English speakers. Then Greenwich Village resident Mendor T. Brunetti, an NYU Professor of Romance Languages with a special interest in French, founded the English Language Program (or today’s ELI).

Yes, surprisingly enough, a professor of French founded the ELI. Brunetti had previously founded the foreign language program for SPS in 1930 and was later instrumental in ensuring that non-European languages, such as Hindi and Swahili, were also taught there.

1967 classroom with rows of students

1967 Class

Classroom with smiling and laughing students

1975 Class

The ELI started small, but it grew quickly. In the 1955-1956 academic years, there were 557 students from 18 countries, and by the 1957-1958 academic year, it was the largest program of its kind in the United States. Around that time it was established as the American Language Institute (today’s ELI). It is hard to imagine, but the program was administered by only one person, Professor Grant Taylor, who also taught full time. Under his leadership, specialty courses were introduced alongside regular ESL classes, including Business English for International Students, Practical English for International Physicians, and Meet the U.S.A.: The Land and Its People.

By the 1961-1962 academic year, the ELI had continued to grow even as schools like Columbia and Queens College took on roughly the same number of international students each year. By then, there were 2,306 students from 51 countries registered in the English Language Program.

Unlike today, few ELI students back then applied on their own. Most were sent to NYU’s English Language Program by foundations, institutes, and government agencies. Sixty colleges and universities asked their accepted students to go to NYU for testing and, if necessary, English instruction. There were also 52 full-time professors teaching in the program.

Two students, one Black, one Asian, in front of The American Language Institute sign.

Outside Office at 1 Washington Square North

Woman wearing large headphones

Student in 1970

By the late 60s, as hippies and rock music were becoming the symbols of American youth, teachers and institutes from around the world observed the ELI’s techniques in person or by specially-equipped televisions. At the height of the Cold War, this included teachers from the Soviet Union and Poland, who brought ELI methodology back to their countries. Yeshiva University, Hunter College, and Fordham University, among others, also incorporated ELI materials, procedures, and techniques into their own programs.

In addition, the ELI’s language lab was used for more than practicing English. Native English speakers from NYU and junior high schools used it to learn French, Arabic, Vietnamese, Turkish, linguistics, and foreign language methodology. There were also tape duplication services for other universities.

Then came the early 1970s, a period of economic stagnation and budget crises in much of the Western World. The effects were especially felt in New York City, with its large number of poor and immigrants. Ironically, only a few years before, NYU professors’ salaries had been raised. NYU found that the sudden drop in enrollment made these higher salaries impossible to pay. Between 23 and 28 full-time ELI teachers were dismissed. Many of them became CUNY (City University of New York) professors and built up English language programs in CUNY schools.

At the same time, the Vietnam War and demonstrations against it had a profound effect on America and its policies. ELI opponents of the Vietnam War wanted to cancel Summer 1970 courses in protest, but other ELI teachers were strongly opposed. Mediators worked out a compromise: ELI classes were officially canceled in protest, but teachers met with students under private arrangements. 

Black students in class


Students at desks


Although the 1970s were as hard on the ELI as they were on schools across America, by the 1978-1979 academic year, there was an increase in ELI enrollment, the beginning of many strong years for the program. SPS opened on October 1, 1979 its Midtown Center at 11 West 42nd Street, one of the places international NYU students study. The ELI also opened a program in Paris in cooperation with the American Chamber of Commerce. The ELI once again became a vibrant, popular program.

Mark-Ameen Johnson, Adjunct Assistant Professor, is currently teaching Mastering Pronunciation II in the Professional English Program. Mary Ritter, Clinical Assistant Professor, is teaching Listening/Speaking in the Comprehensive English Program and Advanced Professional Communication in ELI’s Center for New Immigrant Education.

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