Each year, the National Science Foundation awards outstanding graduate students who are pursuing research-based degrees within science and other disciplines with full-time Graduate Research Program Fellowships (GRP) for them to focus for three full years on the development of their PhD research. This year, UM’s own Marjorie Herbert was one of only seven linguistics students nationwide who received this prestigious award.

This fellowship will allow Marjorie to focus her attention on the study of the effects of bilingualism between American Sign Language and English. Preliminary data that was collected by Marjorie in preparation for the NSF proposal suggests that there appears to be code blending between the two, a kind of contact effect. There is very little research so far on the effects of bilingualism between sign language and a spoken language. As Marjorie puts it: “It’s exciting; it’s a new field. I love it.” Looking at the way signers produce ASL and at the same time mouth English words as they sign is an important aspect that she is examining, but that is only one contact effect. She is considering different syntactic and lexical parallels and differences between ASL and English, among other things.

Marjorie’s lifelong interest in American Sign Language was further fostered when she worked with deaf children in an afterschool program at PennEnvironment in Pennsylvania.

Marjorie is in her second year of the Ph.D. program.  “I really had no idea what I wanted to do when I came to grad school.  I thought I was going to do syntax of an African language.  But my advisor, Acrisio Pires, was also really supportive of the work I had already started on sign language.  “I’m happy I ended up at the University of Michigan. I have plenty of resources and intellectual support to carry out a project that I’m passionate about.  I ran this idea by faculty at another university and they were not as supportive.  It’s cool that I can pursue innovative, unheard of ideas that break out of the mold a little from more established linguistic research.”  

She chose UM because of the welcoming environment that she felt when she visited and for respect that she had of the work of multiple members of the faculty. “I was picking between a few different schools, but mostly I felt like I really fit in at the department: very supportive in a warm, fuzzy way.  Everyone in the department is very kind but firm, goal oriented. I have a lot of friends at other universities and they seem really stressed out. I’m very busy but I like that there is a human component.  The grad students are not pitted against each other; it’s a very nurturing environment. I’m a really big fan of Acrisio and Sam Epstein’s work, so that was a big part of it. I read up a bunch on Marlyse too, she’s my B advisor now. It seemed to fit really well theoretically with what I was interested in. I definitely made the right choice.”