|Look Who's Talking—In Two Languages
Scientists team up to study language acquisition in bilingual babies
In the baby lab and in the home
Maritza Rivera-Gaxiola, a research professor and neurobiologist from UW’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, temporarily relocated to San Antonio to conduct the neurological tests. She spent six weeks measuring the ability of the babies to discriminate among three basic phonemes found in English or Spanish
and testing their mental, motor, behavioral and linguistic
development. To most ears, the syllables tested sound like “ta” or “da,” but in fact there are telling nuances in the use of each syllable in English or in Spanish that will register on the EEG.
By analyzing the EEG data, Rivera-Gaxiola is able to tell whether the babies differentiate between Spanish and English sounds at a very young age.
This technique builds on seminal research done by Kuhl on language acquisition in monolingual babies. Up until 6 to 8 months of age, researchers found, infants can hear and
respond to speech sounds from all languages. But by 10 to 12 months of age, they react only to the sounds used in their
environment, Rivera-Gaxiola explains.
“These kids responded to both languages equally,” says Rivera-Gaxiola. This finding is consistent with the research on monolingual babies, because these children are hearing speech in two languages on a regular basis.
Meanwhile, UTSA researchers are expanding the very
definition of bilingualism. “There is not just one prototype of a bilingual home,” Romo says.
Some children in the research pool have parents who speak only Spanish, but they pick up English from their older siblings. Other children have Spanish-dominant grandparents, with parents who are mostly English-speaking but understand Spanish. Not all the families have roots in Mexico; some bring Spanish from other parts of the world. Another family switches back and forth between English and Spanish, in what many people think of as “Tex-Mex.”
Putting it all together
The interdisciplinary approach is building an extensive database
about the developing bilingual brain, Rivera-Gaxiola says.
Putting the data together will yield research that challenges
the way both academic disciplines think about their subjects.
One example: Rivera-Gaxiola will add variables having to
do with socioeconomic status to her research. “I didn’t have
the ethnographic approach, and it changes and enriches the
way I look at my data,” she says.
Romo finds the study of language acquisition from the phonetic level to be new and enriching information for her own
Ultimately, Romo hopes the study will show “how rich
a bilingual experience is and how much it would contribute to the cognitive development and ability of someone to expand their horizons both educationally and economically,” she says. In these babies’ future, that will be a valuable skill indeed.
*Name has been changed to provide confidentiality.
Associate professor of sociology
Director of the UTSA Mexico Center
Harriett Romo is the lead investigator at UTSA for the Learning in Informal and Formal Environments (LIFE) Project, supported by the National Science Foundation. The purpose of the LIFE Project at UTSA is to allow researchers to study how learning occurs from infancy to adulthood in formal and informal bilingual settings.
Romo also heads the UTSA Mexico Center, which highlights ties between UTSA and Mexico. With interdisciplinary collaboration, the center promotes research, projects and service activities.
Romo has a bachelor’s degree in education, master’s degrees in education and sociology and a Ph.D. in
sociology. She was a postdoctoral scholar in sociology at Stanford University. She has been with UTSA since 1999.
page 1 page2 page3