Linguistics MA Student Wins NSF Award


For her proposal to do research on Muskogean languages, the Department of Linguistics & TESOL graduate student Kimberly Johnson has received a National Science Foundation’s 2015 Graduate Research Fellowship Program award.

Johnson is one of 10 linguistics recipients nationwide and among more than 16,500 applicants for the coveted grant. Graduate students from Yale University, the University of Arizona, Emory University and the University of California-Santa Cruz were among the winners. The fellowship, equivalent to nearly $150,000, will provide three years of financial support and allow Johnson to investigate language attrition within Native American communities.

“The [NSF] reviewers recognized that UT Arlington was a great place to look at language change with Muskogean languages,” said Professor Colleen Fitzgerald, who mentored Johnson and assisted in the fellowship application. “We do community outreach, documentation and revitalization with Native American groups. This is a nice, viable project because it synthesizes what we do here and plays to Kimberly’s strengths.”

Johnson, who earned her bachelor’s degree in Louisiana, is excited about the project and eager to explore linguistic changes in the Muskogean languages – a language family that includes Choctaw, Creek and Chickasaw – that she hypothesizes are similar to changes occurring in pidgin and creole formation. Johnson explains that pidgin language develops through language contact – when two people who speak different languages work to find common ground in which to communicate. The resulting language can have a direct impact on the original languages.

“As a language declines, nuances of grammar, such as irregular forms, which are most difficult to acquire, are likely to be lost,” Johnson said. “Another result of language contact, in addition to language decline, is the loss of complicated inflections to form an easily-acquired pidgin language. My proposed research project will test whether or not there are parallel processes in these two situations.”

Johnson spent time with Fitzgerald and her student team on Native American community projects in Oklahoma over the past several months, witnessing first hand the direct impact of language revitalization efforts. Inspired, she feels the work she will do with the NSF fellowship will have direct application to work on endangered languages.

“I’m very passionate about language rights and minority languages,” she said. “Native American languages are coming back from decades of language oppression. I think the application of my work will help communities identify signs of language decline and help in efforts to revive their language.”

Fitzgerald, who has earned several NSF grants during her tenure at UT Arlington, said she is excited about Johnson’s project and eager to see the results. She is also pleased the University’s reputation for working with endangered languages continues to grow nationwide.

“Kimberly is in top company,” she said. “It’s an incredible moment for us to shine.”

For more information about ongoing language revitalization projects, visit the Native American Languages Lab’s website.


(Story by James Dunning/COLA Communications,



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