|Look Who's Talking—In Two Languages
Scientists team up to study language acquisition in bilingual babies
The research project’s first
challenge: finding families of bilingual babies from 6 to 12 months
of age who could commit to a
long-term study involving lab tests and repeated home visits to gather data about the bilingual environment.
Since most of the families in the
study are classified as low socioeconomic status, the provision of transportation to and from the testing site was essential to the recruitment effort. As further
incentive, each participating family is paid a small stipend to
compensate them for their time.
Though Romo’s biggest fear was that they would not be
able to find enough subjects, 70 families volunteered. Because
of the specific age range needed, however, only 30 babies
started the project. A few have since dropped out, although
the next phase of testing will bring in new participants.
UTSA researchers Ortiz (who earned her master’s
in sociology at UTSA in May 2006) and graduate student
Maria Rodriguez have been highly involved in the project
since day one. “We’ve established a really good relationship
with the families, so they’ve come to trust us a lot,”
Since the initial EEG testing, there have been follow-up visits every three months to assess ongoing language development. Rodriguez and Ortiz are often greeted with offers of home-cooked food and news of the latest developmental milestones.
“They’re trusting us with their kids, and then they’re
trusting us going into their homes, so that’s been very rewarding to us,” Rodriguez adds.
This ability to establish relationships is important for the project, the researchers say. The information elicited during home visits is personal. How does the family define themselves ethnically? Who speaks Spanish? Who speaks English? Who speaks or reads both? What are the attitudes toward both
languages? What foods do they eat? What level of education have they attained? The in-depth questionnaire contains more than 200 questions and takes hours to complete.
The UTSA researchers are also trained to observe
elements of the home environment that affect language
development, such as what is on the television or radio, what music is being played, what books or magazines are on the shelves and what videos are being watched.
“The parents are very, very humble,” Ortiz says. “They’re very open to you and try to assist you as much as they can.” She was especially moved by one parent who showed her carefully preserved copies of songs written by her father, who was from Mexico. Ortiz has a recording of one of the older siblings singing these songs.
On many occasions, Ortiz and her colleagues have gone beyond their job description. There was the time Ortiz arrived for a home visit to find the mother in labor. Off they went to the hospital. Another family was being evicted from their residence; the UTSA researchers helped them find a new place. It’s not unusual to be asked to pick up children from child care or give someone a lift to buy groceries, they say. “We get attached to these families,” Ortiz adds.
Romo believes the project presents her student researchers with a wonderful opportunity. “What my students can do and the sensitivities they have about the bilingual families and the bilingual community, and the opportunity that this kind of research gives them, are extremely important,” she says.
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