In 2016, Dr. Melissa Baralt, Associate Professor of Applied Psycholinguistics at Florida International University, competed in the US HRSA’s Bridging the Word Gap Challenge. Beating 100 other entries in the three-round competition, Melissa used her grant money to create Háblame Bebé—a language-learning app that aims to close the ‘word gap’ and help mothers in low-income Hispanic families in the US to talk with their babies in their native Spanish.
The ‘Word Gap’ is a term coined by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley in a groundbreaking study that revealed how children from families on welfare are exposed to several million fewer words than children from high-income families. Hart and Risley found that this word gap has long-lasting effects on a child’s academic outcomes. Whilst there have since been studies that find fault with Hart and Risley’s research, it is acknowledged widely that building strong language ability during the early years is a key foundation for learning. This oral language development is critical for children’s brain development and is supported by frequent, back-and-forth interactions with their caregivers.
Calvium had the honour of working with Melissa to develop the Háblame Bebé mobile app. In this interview, Melissa sat down with us and detailed the findings of her research, her vision, how Háblame Bebé came to be, and the additional functionalities planned for the future version.
Can you give us a bit of background of your research at Florida International University?
I’m an Associate Professor of Applied Psycholinguistics and I research infant bilingual language development. I have been very involved in studies looking at the cognitive benefits of early years language learning.
One of the studies was with premature-born children. We found that the bilingual preterm-born children had significantly better executive functioning than monolingual preterm-born children. We then undertook brain imaging and saw significant brain differences in the neural recruitment of executive functioning, thanks to benefits to bilingualism. So I’m very excited about this study.
How was Háblame Bebé conceived as an idea?
Since psycholinguistics was my laboratory training, it was easy for me to focus on the numbers and effect sizes and statistical significance. But what really affected me – and I wasn’t expecting to hear from all of the Hispanic mothers in my study – was that they all wanted to tell me about their experience of having a premature baby. Prematurity and the experience of a preterm birth was traumatic for them.
And then, 100% of these mothers –the Hispanic, Spanish-speaking mothers in my study– told me that their paediatrician recommended that they switch to speaking only English with their child. 100%. I was not expecting that at all.
In my studies I was hearing this same story from mothers, in particular people of colour who were living in poverty. They would tell me these narratives constantly, how they were advised to switch to English-only or had experienced linguistic racism.
So, I realised I couldn’t just focus on the numbers anymore. I was getting so frustrated. I know all of the science about the benefits of bilingualism. But I was seeing the children in my research—whose parents have been made to switch to non-native English because of linguistic racism, assimilation pressure, or misinformed clinical advice—that their language was not developing as well as children exposed to native input, and they were having developmental delays. I had to do something.
Why are doctors telling Hispanic mothers to switch to English?
I think there’s a lot of unfortunate myths about bilingual language development in children, and in particular at-risk children such as those born prematurely or those with autism. We have the science that shows that it can be very beneficial to children. But we need to communicate this science as practical and helpful information for parents. We need more research – especially longitudinal studies.
And so I would say that the reasons are myths, are a lack of knowledge, and a limited evidence base – with some studies showing conflicting results. There is no consensus in the field for how to best measure what ‘bilingual’ is. Sadly, I think that It would be an omission to not acknowledge harmful language ideology as part of an American identity problem. There is this very unfortunate trope in US society that to be American, you should speak English only. I mean our own president says that all the time.
If you are disadvantaged or from a low-resource community, there have been horrific examples of ostracism and public shaming for speaking other languages. My research shows that this negatively impacts parent-child interactions and also, negatively impacts child language development, which then affects how children do later on in school.
Can you describe the US HRSA’s federal challenge and how you got in?
I wanted to do something about it [misinformed advice to Spanish-speaking families about bilingualism]. Back in 2016, under the Obama administration, President Obama asked the United States Health Resources and Services Administration to launch the very first federal challenge.
The federal challenge is different than a traditional American grant where anyone could apply. The first stage was to submit just a five- page essay. So I wrote an essay and the topic was how to come up with a low-cost, technology-mediated, scalable intervention to help parents talk more to their babies to improve their vocabulary and language and literacy outcomes.
In the essay, I said low-income Hispanic children, whose parents have been made to believe that they have to switch to non-native English because of assimilation pressure and racism, can have even more of a Word Gap. To my surprise, I made it to the top 10.
So the government selected me and said, ‘Congrats, here’s $10,000.’ And my idea was to create a phone app called Háblame Bebé that teaches low-income Hispanic families about the importance of talking with their baby using what I call ‘language nutrition’.
But you can’t make an app with $10K. So they told me to go build partnerships, create a team, pool resources… and I did. So that’s the start of the very first development of the app.
What did you do after you made it to the Top 10 in the first round of the competition?
So, we got the $10,000, and I created my amazing team – Dr. Ashley Darcy Mahoney (who is a neonatal nurse practitioner) and Dr. Natalie Brito (she’s a developmental psychologist). We did everything right. We went to all of the science, we synthesised all the latest and greatest information, we put all this information into practical recommendations for parents, translated it all professionally into Spanish.
My mission then was to test this beta, rudimentary form of an app with 32 mothers and babies. And I measured mother and baby language interactions before, then they used the app for four months, then they went back to their homes and measured post-test measures.
And I was shocked because that first iteration of app testing, I saw the moms were talking a little bit more to their babies, but not at a statistically significant level. In other words, I didn’t get statistical results. And I was just devastated. I was like, ‘What did I do wrong? Why isn’t this app working?’
So the government assigned us a mentor. This federal challenge was set up very well by the US government and I was encouraged to go back and visit all of the families and just talk to them.
I did focus groups and simply said: “What did you think of this app and how can I improve it?” And broader questions like: “What do you think about English in this country? What did you think about Spanish? What do you think about talking to your baby in Spanish? Tell me your life, your schedule, your routine with your baby.”
And it came to light in these focus groups that every one of the families had experienced linguistic racism. Parents didn’t want to talk in their native Spanish with their babies.
It’s one thing to do science and deliver evidence-based, practical suggestions to parents, but that would not have impact unless I explicitly acknowledge the harmful language ideology problem first.
And so, one mother, a Colombian mom, gave me the recommendation to use ‘Enraicémonos,’ which means let’s be proud of, let’s get in touch with our roots. So I went back to the brainstorming table and I was like, ‘Okay, I need to completely change the focus of this app and the heart of the app needs to be about promoting sociolinguistic pride.’
Sociolinguistic pride refers to the pride to be Hispanic, to speak Spanish, to promote your culture and your heritage language with your baby. And the app needed to teach families: “you ever encounter an ignorant person or misinformed advice, here’s what you do, here are the facts. Sadly, in this country there are ideology problems, here’s how to handle it.” And we made tons of videos showing parents and experts addressing specifically this.
One mother who’s Nicaraguan, in a video I made, she said, “I am so proud to be Nicaraguan and to be bilingual” and she used her beautiful Nicaraguan Spanish and she said “you should be proud to speak Spanish too!”. And I made another video interviewing two parents and they said, “you know in this country it’s hard to maintain our children’s Spanish, but if they lose it, they’ll lose their heritage, and you can do it mom and dad – keep talking to your children in Spanish.”
In other words, this sociolinguistic pride component — this became the heart of the app. And then, of course, all the evidence-based recommendations that my team and I had done (Dr. Darcy Mahoney’s expertise, Dr. Brito’s expertise). That’s what we had to change.
Tell us about your experience during the second round of the competition.
So the federal government flew us to Washington DC. And it was like Shark Tank, it was terrifying. It was so nerve-wracking! We had to report to the US government our results, which were not significant. They required us, in this challenge, to say what didn’t work, why, and what we would do differently if we made it to the next round.
And I was totally honest. I said, “guess what, we didn’t get significant results and here’s why. But based on what all these mothers have told me of their family, we learned about this ideology problem and if you give us funding for the next round, this is how we will change the app.” And my team and I made it around to round 2.
The government gave us $25,000. We had to use that money and completely change the app. So this is Beta 2.0.
We then had to do another study with 12 more moms, and this time it was required that they were all living at the poverty line or below. So I implemented the study again. It was the same study design with new mothers and babies, but this time we also measured sociolinguistic pride. Pre-test, post-test, they used the app for four months in between. Of course, the difference was that in the version of the app that this second group used was focused on sociolinguistic pride as the heart of the intervention.
So you see there is this rapid cycling on getting user feedback. And this time, we got very, very strong significant results with powerful effect sizes.
What changed in the app from the first to the second version that gave you these positive results?
The main difference was a new focus on sociolinguistic pride via new components of the app—videos where parents and experts were talking about how important it is, the pride to be Hispanic, the pride to speak Spanish. So really motivating videos from other Hispanics families and experts.
And then, text messages for the notification. Instead of doing a science-based recommendation, it was about more “‘keep talking Spanish, you can do it”’, “‘Hispanic pride”’, “let’s promote our home culture,” etc.
What happened during the third and final round?
We had to explain the new results to the government and why. And my team and I won the US federal challenge.
So we got $75,000. That’s what let us and Calvium create the final version of the app, and then publish it on iTunes and Google Play.
The app is totally free. It will always be free for families and programs that want to use it. That’s my goal. I’m so thankful to Calvium because Calvium really helped my team and me deliver a bilingual, bicultural experience to families.
How was your relationship with Calvium forged and how was your experience working with their team?
When I first started, I worked with this company called Aha Strategy out of Atlanta, Georgia. We worked with a different developer for that very first iteration of funding, the $10,000 [grant], and it just wasn’t the best situation.
Aha Strategy was the one that hired them [Calvium] for me. The CEO, Jenn Graham, said, “‘Melissa I found a different company. They’re Calvium and they are UK- based but I’m going to we go with them.”’ And I said “great!, let’s do it.”
It was a profound difference because with Calvium, we had weekly video-based meetings, follow up emails, and such clarity – I was so involved with the process. At the same time, the video face-to-face meetings made it so much more personal.
It’s easy to have differences in understanding of expectations with a client and the app developer, and Calvium did a very good job at keeping things feasible and making clear what they could and couldn’t do. And that, therefore, helped me.
They also sometimes made suggestions to me. I would have an idea and I just didn’t know how to realise that idea. They are so experienced and I felt like they believed in this project as much as I did.
That federal challenge experience, doing all those home visits, there were times when I felt like I was just drowning. And Calvium, I felt like they were with me through that whole experience. The fast paced, user-based iterative approach, getting user information and changing and adjusting and adapting—that’s a massive endeavour. And I was doing all of this while at the same time doing my full-time job as a university professor, teaching students, and mentoring thesis projects.
“Calvium were as involved, invested, and emotionally dedicated to the project as I was. That was it. And seeing their faces every week, it just made it like a powerful team. And I had a profoundly positive experience with them. It was one of my favourite aspects of the project.”
What’s next for Háblame Bebé?
Some really exciting news: my team and I (Dr. Darcy Mahoney and Dr. Brito) I just got another grant from the National Library of Medicine under the National Institutes of Health (the U.S. federal oversight of science in the United States) for $450,000. Getting this new grant from the NIH was huge. It’s little by little and I’m so happy that we can keep working with Calvium for this.
We’re still in the process of finalising all the paperwork. So I can’t wait to finally get started and really develop the next version of the app.
That’s exciting. There’s more to come?
Yes. This new grant that we got is a three-year project. The app needs so many more videos and visual resources for parents who have low literacy.
It also needs significantly more resources. And this grant will allow us to really infuse the app and take it to the next level. We have two years scheduled for development.
What we will need to deliver to the US government is an app that can accurately assess a child’s bilingual vocabulary based on parent input and accurately assess a child’s developmental milestones – once again based on parent input.
Calvium will help us to do that. And then in year three, we will be doing another research study. Parents will use the app, and we will assess parent language input to their children as well as child language outcomes, among other factors. Calvium will be with us in year three in case it needs minor adjustments.
And then at the end of year three, we will do final polishing and then push out the final version to iTunes and Google play.
Do you plan to create a version of app for other languages?
You know, some people have asked if we are going to make this available in other languages—in Haitian, Creole, or Portuguese, or Arabic, etc. However, I’m hesitant to do that precisely because of the lessons that I learned in the first study. Language and culture can’t really be separated, and for interventions to work, they must be informed by the families they aim to serve..
To give you one example, Haitian Creole… Here in Miami, we have a huge Haitian community. But Haitian Creole is historically an oral language, in a country with a diglossia situation. Because it’s a Creole language, it’s highly stigmatised, sometimes even by Haitians themselves. Many Haitians do not have literacy in Haitian Creole. The Haitian language academy, Akademi Kreyòl Ayisyen, was only founded in 2015.
In fact, some new data that I have show that Haitian parents in Miami do want to promote Haitian Creole maintenance among their children. We are working to create books in Haitian Creole, and perhaps be able to deliver them electronically with tips for parents in Haitian Creole. But the design and the approach would need to come from Haitian families’ themselves, based on their needs, their likes etc. Maybe Calvium could join me on that! That would really be a dream.