KINGSTON, R.I. – May 12, 2011 – When we speak in our native tongue, we have mannerisms that indicate our gender. University of Rhode Island alumna Marjorie Johnson wants to figure out if those communicative tendencies carry over when individuals learn a second language.
The South Kingstown native will head to Paris, France in October to research the topic, thanks to the Walter J. Jensen Fellowship for French Studies. Johnson – who earned degrees in French and philosophy from URI in 2010 – won the Jensen Fellowship from the Phi Beta Kappa Society this spring. It is designed to help educators and researchers improve education in standard French language, literature and culture and in the study of standard French in the United States.
As the country’s lone recipient, Johnson earned a $14,000 stipend that will allow her to pursue her master’s degree starting in October at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (the School for Advanced Study in Social Sciences) in Paris.
“I love the French academic system, because it puts a lot of the planning on the students,” Johnson said. “Students’ success in France is a function of their own motivation and effort.”
Johnson’s research thesis is “Des américains bilingues en France: la transformation de la parole sexualisée,” or “Bilingual Americans in France: The Transformation of Gendered Speech.”
“All of us speak in a way that reflects our gender,” Johnson said. “I am fascinated to explore why that is. Is it something that carries over when we learn a second language? Is it a product of how we are raised? I want to know how much of our speaking patterns are determined by the social expectations that surround us.”
Johnson studied in Quebec in the fall of 2008, and in Compiègne, France in the spring of 2009.
“I love French linguistics, French literature and art history, so the opportunity to study in Paris is very exciting,” said Johnson, who taught several sections of French courses at URI this year.
Johnson’s parents speak French. Her father, Galen, is a professor of philosophy at URI and the director of the University’s Center for the Humanities. Her mother, Becky, is a French and Spanish teacher at South Kingstown High School, as well as an accomplished violinist. Marjorie Johnson plays the piano and upright bass, and is an award-winning poet.
In a letter of recommendation she wrote for Johnson, Professor Cheryl Foster, chair of URI’s Philosophy Department, praised Johnson’s many talents.
“Marjorie has distinguished herself as an unusually creative sort of intellectual, one whose approach to empirical matters always bears the stamp of her roots as a poet,” Foster wrote. “Despite her decampment to philosophy and linguistics, Marjorie Johnson will always have the soul of a poet. One can detect that in the way she has conceived her study of gendered patterns amongst native English speakers using French as a primary language. Leave it to a lover of art and words to query the structures by which our native presumptions about social identity become malleable under the influence of a different linguistic tradition.”
University of Rhode Island graduate Marjorie Johnson won the 2011 Walter J.
Jensen Fellowship and will spend two years studying in Paris, France.