Anthropologist awarded National Geographic Society grant

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The National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration has awarded Associate Professor Elise Berman a prestigious grant in support of her research on Pacific immigrants. Berman, a specialist in the study of childhood and language acquisition, is moving her research from the Marshall Islands to rural Arkansas.

Climate change may soon make many small Pacific island nations uninhabitable. Many Marshallese cite climate change as a reason to leave, Berman writes. While some depart to large, diverse cities that have long been immigrant centers, many are migrating to the landlocked, previously almost entirely white community of Springdale, Arkansas. Marshallese children speak an unrecognized vernacular form of English, and local schools incorrectly label Marshallese students as non-English speakers. According to Berman, research with other groups shows that misinterpretations of minority children’s language practices are involved in the racialization and misunderstanding of minority communities. Her new project in Springdale will document Marshallese kindergarteners’ cultural and language practices in local schools. This work with climate change refugees provides a rare opportunity to document previously undescribed linguistic and cultural diversity and to consider how migration linked to climate change and other issues is transforming racial hierarchies in the American South.