FIU professor targets ‘word gap’ in Hispanic children


By Nicole Montero

Linguistics professor chosen as one of 10 “Word Gap Challenge” winners

When Melissa Baralt started looking into the “word gap” – the difference between the number of words children from low-income families are exposed to compared to children from high-income families – she couldn’t believe what she found.

“I was stunned to discover that babies from low-income families are exposed to 30 million less words than babies from middle- and high-class families,” said Baralt, assistant professor of applied linguistics in the Department of Modern Languages, which is part of the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs. “I decided to create an [app], Háblame Bebé (Talk To Me, Baby). I researched the idea and found that apps can be enormously successful in promoting vocabulary growth in children if they generate talk time.”

The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration selected Baralt’s app idea as one of 10 winners out of more than 75 applicants for its Bridging the Word Gap Challenge. The challenge asked scholars to come up with innovative technology solutions to tackle the word gap among children from low-income families. Baralt chose to focus on Hispanic children, in particular, because of her knowledge of the benefits of bilingualism in children’s linguistic development.

“Sadly, bilingualism is not a universally valued outcome in this country,” said Baralt. “Many teachers, caregivers and even doctors believe that Spanish-speaking parents should only speak English with their children. Wanting to do what is best for their children, Hispanic parents often subscribe to this belief, too. As a result, low-income Hispanic babies are not exposed to the critical linguistic properties of a native maternal language.”

From now until August, each of the 10 winning teams will create prototypes of their ideas or implement the proposed intervention and test its effectiveness. All winners receive a cash prize of $10,000 as well as access to mentors to help them design testing methodologies.

Baralt’s idea was the only one that specifically targeted the word gap in Hispanic families and aims to promote bilingualism.

“It is a myth that exposure to two languages will delay a child,” she said. “The word gap is worse for Hispanic children whose immigrant caregivers believe that they should switch from Spanish to English as a result of assimilation pressure.”

Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistic Melissa Baralt

Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistic Melissa Baralt

Baralt’s application will track a child’s vocabulary growth progress, as well as feature a daily talk time input tool that will allow users to track total talk time in both Spanish and English. Users will also be able to rate and track what words the baby knows at various developmental stages.

“They’ll be able to easily share their baby’s progress through social media, which will promote a social accountability that game theory scholars have shown works to encourage participation in educational mobile applications,” said Baralt.

Ashley Darcy Mahoney, a neonatal nurse from Emory University, and Natalie Brito, a psychologist from Columbia University, will be joining Baralt’s team.

Currently, Baralt and Mahoney are conducting a study to test whether bilingualism helps children born prematurely in the area of executive function, such as paying attention and reasoning.

The study, funded by The Language Learning grant and the Kranys Innovation Fund, has already shown some positive results.

“So far, our data shows that it does, but it depends on whether the children have productive capacity in Spanish,” said Baralt. “Unfortunately, many of the parents in my study reported that their children’s pediatricians and teachers have suggested they not use Spanish at home.”

Baralt said her experiences with people in the Hispanic community encouraged her to brainstorm innovative means to raise awareness about the importance of bilingualism and language exposure for Hispanic infants.

“Bilingualism confers many brain benefits, and we can reap these brain benefits simply by using two languages a day, starting at any age,” she said. “My north star is promoting bilingual communities. Being funded to develop this app will assist me in my continued work towards this goal.”

For more on the HRSA Word Gap Challenge, click here.

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