Sadly, bilingualism is not a universally valued educational outcome for non-native English speakers in this country. Many teachers, professional caregivers, and even doctors promote the idea that Spanish-speaking parents should only speak English with their children. Wanting to do what is best for their children, low-income Hispanic parents and caregivers often subscribe to this belief too. As a result, low-income Hispanic babies are not exposed to the critical linguistic properties of a native maternal language. By age three, these children have an extreme Word Gap: they have only about one-third the vocabulary of their upper-class peers (Hart & Risley, 2004).
In addition to fueling the Word Gap, neglecting to engage children with their first language or “heritage language,” results in the loss of important cultural values (Fillmore, 1991). Eventually, low-income Hispanic children tend to become ostracized for speaking poor Spanish and English, leaving them out of both of worlds they are straddling and damaging their emotional and academic trajectories (Anzaldúa, 1987; Montrul, 2013).
There are many proven benefits to bilingualism (Bialystok, 2007), including the reduction of academic risks associated with low socioeconomic status (Turner Nesbitt et al., 2013). In fact, research shows that children whose native Spanish-speaking parents speak only Spanish at home learn English better than children whose Spanish-speaking parents try to speak in non-native English at home (Montrul, 2013). Beyond the academic benefits of bilingualism, learning basic communicative oral skills in their native language also provides children with essential cultural and emotional tools.
The Háblame Bebé phone application will improve Hispanic children’s academic readiness by age three and encourage them to engage with their cultural identities by facilitating parents’ and caregivers’ efforts to reduce the Word Gap and promote bilingualism. The trajectory of these children's lives can be dramatically changed if parents are educated to understand the primacy of language for young children, coached to provide language nutrition to their baby in their native language, and assisted in building the habit of talking to their infant even as early as the prenatal period.
This innovative language-learning app trains Hispanic parents and caregivers to use evidenced-based strategies in Spanish, so that they gain the knowledge and skills necessary to improve their child’s academic outcomes. Educational mobile applications have proven to be an effective means for implementing behavioral changes in users (Toyama, 2015) and mobile phone reminders have proven a highly effective way to instantiate behavioral change (Kendzor et al., 2016). Also, according to the Pew Research Center, Hispanics have the greatest ownership of cell phones of any U.S. ethnic group (71%), further justifying delivery of this educational intervention through an app. In addition, if anyone interested in participating in our research does not have access to a mobile phone, we will provide one for them with our research funds.
The Háblame Bebé app takes advantage of these affordances to educate users about their own power to shape a child’s brain and future academic success. The app includes the following tools and features:
1. Invitation to participate:
The app’s interface is in both Spanish and English, so each caregiver can choose their language of preference. When designated as caregiver, the user receives an email in both Spanish and English, thanking him or her for participating in an educational intervention and explaining the significance of the Word Gap. The email lists the technological and educational affordances of the Háblame Bebé app and emphasizes how important caregiver involvement is for their child’s language development and academic success. The email ends with an invitation to download the app.
Using 1) videos, 2) sound bites with specific examples of the types of talk that are most beneficial, and 3) infographic-style lessons that users can swipe through on the mobile interface, the app provides parents and caregiver(s) with educational information about the child’s developmental stage, the importance of talk time for the child’s growing brain, and caregivers’ role in the child’s language development. It also teaches users about the brain benefits of bilingualism, encouraging them to foster this skill through one-on-one talk time in both Spanish and English. All educational lessons are available in both languages.
3. Daily engagement:
Each day, the app sends designated caregivers reminders and suggestions based on their notification preferences. These include:
(a) A reminder that the best thing they can do for a child’s developing brain is talk time! Because we recognize that low-income families may have multiple jobs, we highlight that even 5 minutes of additional talk time throughout the day can have a significant impact on their children’s language acquisition.
(b) Sample sound bites of ideal language examples in Spanish and in English, so that they know how to talk to their child in the most efficacious way for language development (e.g., introducing new words, using language that elicits responses, creating recasts, which repeat the child’s incorrect phrase in the correct form, etc.).
(c) Encouraging reminders and explanations of why Spanish language input is positive, important, and necessary alongside the fostering of English acquisition.
(d) Suggested conversation topics to have with their child, such as “Dile a Diego cómo fue tu día” (Tell Diego about your day today), or “Pregúntale a Diego sobre su juguete favorito” (Ask Deigo about his favorite toy).
(e) Short videos of other Hispanic parents, children, and experts talking about the benefits bilingualism.
(f) Suggestions of interaction-based activities according to their child’s developmental stage. These will be organized according to the length of time each activity takes, so busy parents can take advantage of small increments of free time.
So that there is incentive to engage with the app, completed activity and talk time data entry will be ‘gamified’: parents and caregivers will receive points for app engagement that they can then share via social media.
Their child’s progress chart will only grow with increased talk time.
Háblame Bebé encourages increased talk time and fosters vocabulary growth in both English and Spanish by encouraging users to earn points by entering how much talk time they completed with their child each day. This entry generates data on a talk-time progress chart, which includes both Spanish and English talk time.
To encourage use of this feature, users receive a daily reminder to enter their talk time with their child. Their progress is then illustrated with a bar chart that shows total minutes of talk-time for each language, with bars in the chart representing each caregiver. Upon inputting talk time for the day, parents and caregivers earn points. Additionally, parents and caregivers can upload videos demonstrating their talk time. These videos serve as archives of their child’s language engagement for parents to look back on. The videos can also be shared on the Háblame Bebé social media sites using the hash tag #hablamebebe.
The app also offers the user incentive of visually illustrating a child’s vocabulary growth over time by prompting parents and caregivers to assess how many words the child knows in Spanish and in English each month and generating a personalized vocabulary growth progress chart that corresponds to the child’s age. Parents and caregivers will receive points for doing the language assessment, which will then be used to grow the child’s “language tree,” an interactive in-app feature that allows the user to see the child’s language grow from a sapling to a full tree with limbs that represent different language growth features.
In addition to the social media growth, the marketing for the app includes materials for day care centers, which can promote their use of the Háblame Bebé app as an educational incentive for clients.
The amount that parents talk to their babies––not the parent’s social class, income or ethnicity––is the most accurate predictor of their child’s academic success. Using an app to encourage low-income Hispanic parents and caregivers to play more proactive roles in their children’s language acquisition and communication proficiency will have a high impact because this technology and style of educational interaction is highly accessible to Hispanic parents. In addition, the app will be free, eliminating another barrier to use. By using Háblame Bebé, parents are able to efficiently reduce the Word Gap for their children, increase their child’s academic-readiness by age three, promote their child’s bilingualism and, thus, engagement with their own Hispanic culture.
Collective impact in the long-term:
I currently have partnerships with the nationally recognized Talk With Me Baby initiative as well as the Bridging the Word Gap Research Network. Both are wide-scale education initiatives that focus on improving the well-being of babies, especially those at risk for language delay. These organizations are comprised of key stakeholders as well as support teams from government agencies, healthcare providers, and non-profit agencies. Using the collective impact model of change, these potential partners have the commitment of community leaders from different sectors but with the common agenda of solving the social problem of the Word Gap. Collaborating with these partners on reducing the Word Gap for children of Spanish-speaking parents provides resources to Háblame Bebé, but also expands these initiatives’ repertoire, promoting diversity and more focused educational interventions strategies for marginalized populations.
In addition to approaching the Word Gap problem through an interactive tech tool, we also recognize that on-the-ground, one-on-one education is a significant and complementary means to educate parents and encourage a new model of language interaction between caregivers and children. Thus, we will also implement the following long-term strategies:
1. Community Marketing Strategies: Distribute printed Háblame Bebé promotional and educational materials to enhance public awareness in places such as schools and hospitals, public transportation, shopping centers, community centers, and local markets.
2. Resource Kits at Birth: Provide all new Hispanic mothers in Miami Dade County, Florida, and Atlanta, Georgia, with a print resource kit explaining the Word Gap, the benefits of speaking in heritage language and fostering bilingualism, and instructions for creating a rich language environment for her new baby.
3. Promotion at WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) Centers: Collaborate with all WIC Centers in Miami Dade to show a short informational video in Spanish and provide literature to new mothers.
These strategies will help us to reach the most at-risk Hispanic families, including those who do not have a cell phone, who are marginalized, or who have minimal time and/or experience chronic stress related to poverty.