Háblame Bebé: An app to help Hispanic families reduce the Word Gap and promote bilingualism

What if low-income Hispanic babies had the same opportunities for language development as babies from high-income, English-speaking homes?

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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

Sadly, many babies in the U.S. have a “Word Gap,” which is a language disparity that results in children in poverty hearing on average 30 million fewer words than children from more affluent families by age three. This results in these children having a significantly smaller vocabulary size, slower language processing, and a lifetime of learning difficulty. The Word Gap is even more severe for Hispanic children whose immigrant caregivers believe they should switch from Spanish to English as a result of assimilation pressure. Non-native input is less useful to babies’ language acquisition than native input. When Spanish-speaking caregivers switch to English, it decreases children’s vocabulary in English and slows the growth of their Spanish vocabulary. In my work as a linguistics researcher, I observe this social problem far too often. Recently, I visited a daycare center in a poor Hispanic area. The caregivers, who were Spanish-speakers, only spoke in English to the children. Their speech was simplistic, consisting of mostly one-word directives. I thought: what if they knew that talking to babies in their native language, Spanish, was the best thing for their academic outcomes? Doing so would also promote bilingualism, which brings many brain benefits. This observation inspired me to invent an innovative means to teach Hispanic parents and caregivers to speak more in Spanish and promote bilingualism in their children as a means to academic success and cultural pride.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, Caucasian)



Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • Florida

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]


Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • Florida

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

Miami, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

A child’s learning difficulties resulting from the Word Gap only worsen as she grows because the brain’s development is already 85% complete by age three. Thus, this project targets parents and caregivers as greater agents of change than classroom educators, who only get students after their language acquisition has been significantly impaired. It is imperative that parents, caregivers, educators, and researchers collaborate to make early interventions that reduce the Word Gap and promote bilingualism among these children. In addition to linguistic diversity’s positive impact on Hispanic children’s educational achievement, it also contributes to their global participation and competitiveness. Furthermore, education on the benefits of bilingualism and on speaking to children in one’s own native tongue will help dispel assimilationist myths that harm Hispanic identity and culture.

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).

The solution:

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.

2. Education:

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.

4. Motivation:

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 impact:

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.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Childcare

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Start-Up (a pilot that has just started operating)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

A mother in our study explained why she valued the app, which engaged her with her baby’s education and proved to her that her background is valuable to her baby’s success: “I had no idea that how much I talk to my baby is the main predictor of how well he does later on in school! The way the app works is it sends you reminders and suggestions for talk-time topics. I like the examples and videos. I enter how much talk-time we do each day, as well as the words he knows so that I can track his vocabulary growth. I can also upload videos. I didn’t know that speaking to my baby in my native language Spanish is good for him. This made me feel empowered because even with my limited English, I am able to help him academically in this country.”

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

To test the app’s efficacy, we conducted a study during which 20 low-income Hispanic families used the app for 12 weeks. We examined parent-child interaction, mother and infant vocabulary, socioeconomic background, and stress variables. We found that families used the app daily and significantly increased their talk time in Spanish. This was were confirmed by app usage data, journal entries, and recordings demonstrating improved interaction. All caregivers acquired new knowledge on the Word Gap and on the benefits of bilingualism, and 100% of participants reported finding the app easy and fun to use. Ultimately, we plan to take our research nationwide and grow the app’s use exponentially. Our desired outcome is that by the age of three, children whose low-income, native Spanish-speaking parents use the app will have no significant vocabulary size difference compared to their peers.

Organization Type

  • government

Annual Budget

  • $1k - $10k

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

I will apply for grants. My other ideas to secure funds are to collaborate with / do the following: (1) national crowdfunding campaign, (2) corporations with social responsibility initiatives, (3) mobile ads, (4) Give Local America, Amazon Smile, or Miami Foundation (5) Partner with a Hispanic celebrity Videos parents upload to social media with #hablamebebe will also serve as marketing, helping with the marketing content cost.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

Cell phone apps can be enormously successful in promoting vocabulary growth in children if they help caregivers generate talk time (Luckin, 2015; Sosa, 2015). Some apps do exist for this purpose: Daily Vroom and Talk with Me Baby are two apps that do just that. Both, however, are for English-only speakers. Moreover, neither incorporates tracking capabilities for monitoring talk time or vocabulary growth. Háblame Bebé is the first app to do so, and specifically targets the Word Gap and promotes bilingualism for Hispanic families for the first time.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

Háblame Bebé is the first educational app to promote bilingualism among low socio-economic status Hispanics in the U.S. It empowers Hispanic parents and caregivers by training them on how to use evidence-based strategies in their heritage language. By speaking in Spanish and passing on their culture, which is entirely free to do, parents learn they have the knowledge and skills to improve their babies’ academic outcomes. This project also changes conceptions of bilingualism among the marginalized and gives educational apps an exciting new place in early childhood education and caregiving.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Word of mouth

Referral: If you discovered the Challenge thanks to an organization or person other than Ashoka, who was it? (the answer will not be public)

Dr. Ashley Darcy Mahoney

Program Design Clarity

Háblame Bebé targets low-income Hispanic parents and caregivers as well as babies in their care. The app educates users on the Word Gap and the benefits of using their heritage language with their babies. For example, the app features motivational videos of a Hispanic mother talking to her infant. Once parents watch this model, they are then encouraged to upload and share videos of themselves doing the same through the app. Parents also input their baby’s language development into a tracker in the app and earn points when they report that they incorporated new language strategies.

Community Leadership

We will use the following feedback collection methods: • Real-time feedback via social media • Anonymous online surveys • Community listening sessions • Individual interviews • Quantitative metrics (app use data) Beneficiaries can opt to have their feedback collected via home visitation and receive compensation to ensure representation of their voice. Feedback results will be shared with stakeholders each quarter and responses collected.

Age of Children Impacted

  • Pregnancy - 0
  • 0-1.5
  • 1.5 -3

Spread Strategies

The end goal is twofold: to launch Háblame Bebé at the national level and establish a wide-scale education initiative with multiple sector stakeholders. Forging partnerships with Talk With Me Baby and Bridging the Word Gap Research Network has been pivotal in this goal. Accomplishing full impact will include more partnerships, a public action campaign, clinician/educator training, and the distribution of resource kits to new Hispanic mothers.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

Through language, Hispanic caregivers transfer their heritage and wisdom to children, strengthening their relationship and promulgating a sense of self-worth and cultural pride. Parents and caregivers are able to take a more active role in their child’s development, giving them a higher sense of self-efficacy in their child’s academic success. This sense of agency is key to developing and maintaining a sense of community connectedness and purpose

Leadership Story

As a linguist who loves numbers, I never realized that my biggest project would be refocusing my research on solutions to a social problem. After studying Hispanic children who master neither Spanish nor English and talking with mothers who tell me their children’s doctors and teachers insisted they switch to English only at home, I became dissatisfied with simply researching the mainstream spread of misinformation about language acquisition for low-income Hispanics. I am determined to create an educational intervention that sets Hispanic students up for success and validates their heritage.

What awards or honors has the project received? (Optional)


Organization's Twitter Handle


Organization’s Facebook Page (URL)


Leader's LinkedIn Profile (URL)


Evaluation results

6 evaluations so far

1. Relevance: Does this project seem to help children (ages 0 to 12 years) develop a strong sense of self, belonging, and purpose?

5 - Yes, this is great! The project lays out a strong, compelling case for how its model nurtures children’s wellbeing. - 50%

4 - It seems like a good fit, and the model talks explicitly about children’s wellbeing. - 16.7%

3 - I think so. The project seems related to children’s wellbeing, but the logic is vague. - 33.3%

2 - Not sure. The project doesn’t have much to do with wellbeing, or it doesn’t give enough information. - 0%

1 - Nope, this project definitely doesn’t fit the challenge brief (e.g., It doesn’t help kids younger than 12, isn’t in the U.S., etc.) - 0%

2. Innovation: Does this project tackle children’s wellbeing from a new angle?

5 - I loved this! The project describes a novel model that addresses important cultural or systemic barriers. - 33.3%

4 - This is pretty cool. The project is addressing an important problem in a new or compelling way. - 33.3%

3 - I feel like there’s something there, but I want more details about what makes it distinctive. - 33.3%

2 - It’s a good project, but I’ve seen others like it before. - 0%

1 - It was confusing or hard to tell what it made it different. - 0%

3. Social Impact: What is this project’s potential for creating positive social impact?

5 - Lots of potential. This project is achieving impressive results, and it’s growing quickly. It could absolutely inspire changes in the ways we approach caring for kids nationally, across sectors (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 0%

4 - Pretty good potential. This project demonstrates significant positive impact so far, and it could scale regionally or nationally one day and fundamentally change how a system operates (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 33.3%

3 - Budding potential. This project is creating local impact, but it would take a few adjustments before it could scale. - 50%

2 - Some potential. This project demonstrates some initial positive impact, but it would require major changes before it could scale. - 16.7%

1 - Limited potential. This project has great intentions, but it looks like it does not include key drivers of a shift towards children’s wellbeing. - 0%

4. Overall, how do you feel about this idea?

5 - This idea rocked my world. It’s awesome! - 16.7%

4 - This idea seems really exciting. With a little more polishing, it’d be among my favorites. - 33.3%

3 - I think the idea is great, but it needs some work before it moves onto the next round. - 50%

2 - I liked it fine but preferred others. - 0%

1 - It didn’t make my heart beat faster. Needs significant revisions. - 0%

5. Offer some feedback. Where should this participant spend some time revising?

DEFINING THE PROBLEM. Make sure to articulate the root causes or main barriers of the social issue your project addresses. (Founding Story, Problem, Solution). - 0%

CLARITY OF MODEL. Make sure to mention (a.) the beneficiary, b) the main activities, and c) how those activities drive social impact. Keep it streamlined! - 0%

MARKETPLACE. Make sure to research other players in this space and articulate how this project is different. I didn’t get a complete sense of how this project compares to others. - 0%

IMPACT POTENTIAL. Make sure to use specific numbers to describe what your project has achieved so far! And consider how you might scale the model or its insights, through partnerships, trainings, or franchising. - 33.3%

WRITING STYLE. Try to stay concise and make it vivid. Avoid jargon. - 33.3%

Nothing stands out! I thought it was great. - 100%


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