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A love for languages

March 14, 2019
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ANN ARBOR— Michael Ward learned Japanese in high school to talk with his grandmother. And that started a lifelong love for learning languages.

This past summer, Ward was in Suzhou, China learning Chinese as a recipient of the prestigious Critical Language Scholarship. He is also majoring in French and Spanish with minors in computer science, Chinese, and translation studies.

“When I asked my grandmother about her upbringing in Japanese instead of English, her responses were genuine, personal, and sincere,” he said. “Our newfound linguistic connection unlocked the door to many untold experiences and cultural beliefs, and to a deeper understanding of my own Asian heritage.”

Since high school, Ward has sought out language immersion opportunities whether it was to assist French-speaking asylum seekers through Freedom House in Detroit or translating for Ann Arbor’s international community. He has also co-founded a club that pairs U-M Chinese language students with international Chinese students who have expressed an interest in sharing their language and culture.

This year, Ward, a senior in LSA, is finishing his honors thesis on third language phonological acquisition. It means that he is looking into the effects of first and second languages on accents and pronunciations in a third language.

“You might expect your first language to have the most influence, but it seems that might not always be the case,” said Ward. “I was once asked by one of my Spanish professors if I was an exchange student from France—to her, I was speaking Spanish with a French accent, even though my first language is English.”

Ward’s position as assistant lab manager for the Speech Production Lab at U-M, has provided him the skills necessary to conduct language research. His work on the Argentine-Afrikaner Collaboratory project focuses on a community of bilingual Afrikaans-Spanish speakers who immigrated to Argentina from South Africa in the early 1900s.

“This experience has been so valuable, and I’m grateful for this fantastic opportunity and excellent mentor in my thesis advisor, Nick Henriksen!”

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