UTSA Discover
UTSA Discover

2007 VOL.1, NO 1

The Road to Excellence
First Edition
Feature Stories
A Deadly Foe

Look Who's Talking—
In Two Languages

Tracking Transportation

Destroying to Protect

After the Dissertation
About Us

Bilingual baby
Look Who's Talking—In Two Languages
Scientists team up to study language acquisition in bilingual babies

To 9-month-old Warren*, a visit to the UTSA baby lab must have seemed like child’s play. As he wiggled and fussed on his mom’s lap, researcher Sophia Ortiz waved plastic toys in front of his face. A Barney video played silently in the background. A visiting professor placed a funny cap on his head. What looked from the outside like child’s play was actually serious science.

The stretchy knit “pilot cap” Warren wore featured 19 sewn-in sensors dotting the surface, each filled with conducting gel. The sensors began picking up and amplifying a record of Warren’s brain responses to sounds from a machine, and soon waves of squiggly lines began appearing on a nearby computer screen. After about 20 minutes, the electroencephalogram (EEG) recording was over, but the study of Warren and his brain was just beginning.

Warren was one of 30 children recruited by UTSA sociologists in fall 2005 to participate in an ambitious project studying language acquisition in children growing up in bilingual environments. The project brings together sociologists, neuroscientists and educators from UTSA and the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences in a multiyear collaboration. The aim of the research is to study the development of the bilingual brain using the methods of both the neuroscientist and the social scientist.

“We want to know how the baby’s bilingual brain develops and how infants, even before they learn to talk, are processing two languages,” says Harriett Romo, associate professor of sociology and head of the research team at UTSA.

Though the use of EEGs and standardized tests is an essential part of the research framework, what’s fascinating to Romo and her team are the complex social contexts that shape language acquisition in bilingual environments.

The research is part of a five-year, $90 million National Science Foundation (NSF) initiative examining “the science of learning.” Beginning in 2004, NSF grants established study centers at four major educational institutions. Each center focuses on a different aspect of learning and the brain, and by design, each center is highly collaborative.

UTSA is linked with the Center for Learning in Informal and Formal Environments (the LIFE Center), an interdisciplinary collaboration between the University of Washington (UW), Stanford University and the Stanford Research Institute. It was through a colleague at the Stanford Research Institute that Romo first heard about the LIFE Center and the proposed research on the bilingual brain. Because much of Romo’s research focuses on Spanish-speaking families and bilingual children, it was a natural fit.

“Language is not only communication, it’s culture. … If you truly want to understand people from another culture, you have to speak their language,” says Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the UW Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. Kuhl is renowned for her work on language acquisition and the brain.

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