Research and Outreach
Infant's brain development in a bilingual environment
The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) and the University of Washington in Seattle (UW) collaborated in a study to explore how infants develop language in a bilingual context. UW has conducted many studies on language acquisition with monolingual infants in Mexico, China and Switzerland and was interested in adapting their study in a bilingual city. They chose UTSA downtown campus as it is located in the center of the Hispanic community in San Antonio, Texas.
The Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS) is located at the University of Washington. The I-LABS and UTSA CAPRI Center (Child and Adolescent Policy Research Institute) have developed a project that involves and connects parents and families who are interested in learning how infants develop speech and language skills in English and Spanish.
The study is conducted using both quantitative and qualitative approaches in order to understand child development and cognitive development and to study how a language environment affects a child's development. The study also involves the parents as active participants in this research project. This allows the opportunity for families to become more active in the research and helps them understand the developmental growth of their child. We provide parents with a development chart to document their children as they perform specific age appropriate behaviors, such as interaction with others, communication in language, and uses of toys and play. Other assessments include the McArthur Communicative Development Inventory (CDI), assessments of vocabulary in English and Spanish and in-depth interviews that are conducted in order to better understand the complexity of the child’s home and language environment.
Researchers were trained in Seattle to review and understand the science of language acquisition among infants. The extensive training held at UW at the I-LABS (Institute for Language and Brain Sciences) allowed for hands-on training with pilot babies and their parents. We were also able to experience the research in a clinical aspect by observing the lab where event-related brain potentials (ERPs) of electrical brain activity were monitored and recorded for response to sensory, cognitive or motor stimuli.
The purpose of the ERPs is to measure the electrical brain activity that is related to the psychological and neural events underlying human language. The ERPs are conducted by placing caps on the infants’ heads to record brain activity during the infants' exposure to Spanish and English syllables.
Recruitment of participants was held at many Head Start agencies such as AVANCE, Parent Child Incorporated and Texas Migrant Council. We conducted various informational sessions on the project and presented power point presentations which allowed us to show the demonstrations to the parents we were trying to recruit. Other parents who participated in the project came from UTSA, the WIC office, and homeless shelters for women and children located in the downtown vicinity. Many parents were excited to participate while others were sent to us by “word of mouth”. We recruited a total of 36 babies for the first phase of the research.
The tests were administered from Monday through Friday as we picked up the participants and their parents at their homes and returned them. The responsibility of the researcher was to answer any questions and have the consent and questionnaires on bilingualism answered completely. The first series of testing included the Bayley Scales (an assessment of mental, motor and behavioral skills) and CDIs. The second series of testing consisted of ERPs and a cognitive test. During the second round of testing active participants from the first round were re-tested to document progresses/changes.
Findings thus far through home observations and observations conducted at the UTSA Brain Study lab include:
The use of media, such as videos like Dora the Explorer and Diego, as teaching tools.
Families trying to maintain their first language, which is primarily Spanish, in the home.
Maintaining their culture by celebrating holidays such as Dia De Los Muertos and teaching their family tradition by making tamaladas.
The language exposure from the caregiver (at home or in a daycare) influences the predominant language for child.
Through the assessments administered at the UTSA lab, parents have become better informed about their child’s growth and development.
As parents learn more about the study, some have made it a point to enroll their children in a dual language school and programs.