|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
“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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