Research consistently shows that children from lower-income homes can be exposed to up to 30 million fewer words than those from middle-income households – greatly affecting their language development and chances later on in life.
To help close the Word Gap, Melissa Baralt, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics at Florida International University, and her team developed Háblame Bebé, an award-winning language-learning app for Hispanic mothers. Melissa enlisted our help to improve the software – kickstarting a project that has been equally rewarding, eye-opening and important for everyone involved.
Closing the Word Gap
Part of Melissa’s psycholinguistic research involves working in daycare centres in Miami-Dade County, Florida – home to some of the largest Hispanic communities in the US.
There, Melissa observed that daycare care-providers were speaking to children in non-native English, regardless of the children’s parents’ heritage or native language. She also observed this switch with low-income Hispanic parents. Digging deeper, Melissa unearthed a wider issue: Many Hispanic mothers had experienced linguistic racism when they spoke to their babies in public in Spanish. Others had been told by their pediatrician to switch to English when talking with their babies.
“I heard story after story of mothers feeling threatened when speaking Spanish, and believing that to succeed in the United States, you have to abandon your heritage language and switch to English,” says Melissa. “Until I acknowledged this bigger societal issue of language prejudice and identity, I wasn’t going to change anything.”
Melissa was shocked by this finding – but beyond the real and present danger of racism against Hispanic communities, preventing infants from learning Spanish deprived them in one other key area.
Research shows that when mothers switch to a non-native language to speak to their infants, they talk less with their children and use less complex language, preventing them from expanding their children’s vocabulary. This inhibits babies’ neurological development, which in turn affects their vocabulary development and chances for success later in life. Contrarily — science consistently shows that when mothers use their native heritage language with their babies, those children go on to learn the majority language (i.e., English) better later on when they start school. What’s more, when mothers use their native language, they can promote bilingualism with their children.
Bilingualism has been shown to increase children’s developmental chances even before birth. “Bilingualism can even reduce the risk affects associated with poverty in children – as it gives them an edge,” says Melissa. Preventing children from learning both Spanish and English therefore deprives them of a valuable opportunity.
These issues were the focus of the US Government’s ‘Bridging the Word Gap Challenge’ – a competition hosted by the Health Resources and Service Administration (HRSA) designed to help children from low-income backgrounds have the same linguistic opportunities as their higher-income peers, via scalable technological innovation.
In response, Melissa pitched her idea for Háblame Bebé (‘Talk to me baby’), a mobile app for Hispanic mothers that would help them talk to their children in Spanish, using educational resources and simple conversational cues.
Háblame Bebé succeeded in the first round of the competition, providing Melissa with $10,000 to build together a team and an MVP version of her app. Following a partnership with the state of Georgia nursing programme, Melissa formed a team with Dr. Natalie Brito (New York University) and Dr. Ashley Darcy Mahoney (George Washington University). Armed with three months’ worth of research, the project then won through to the second round. The victory earned Melissa’s programme a further $25,000, and put Háblame Bebé alongside teams from Stanford and the University of Kansas.
Communication, organisation, gamification
With the second iteration of the app, Melissa targeted the problem of linguistic racism with greater focus – adding videos and social media content that encouraged Hispanic mothers to have pride in their bilingualism and Spanish heritage. In this final phase, all twelve of the mothers who tested the app significantly improved the linguistic nutrition that they offered their children- and in their native Spanish.
The HRSA was impressed. Melissa and her team had won the final round of the competition – earning her programme a $75,000 prize for further development. Melissa also teamed up with Jen Graham of Aha! Strategy, who introduced Calvium to help realise Melissa’s vision for the project.
Melissa had a privately-hosted version of Háblame Bebé that she wanted to expand, with functionality suggested by her user groups before public release. These features included push notifications (Melissa was writing and sending text messages to users manually), a badge system to gamify the language learning process, and embedded tuition videos.
Calvium were on hand to rebuild Háblame Bebé from the ground-up, providing additional functionality and a new user experience, in a process Melissa described as clear, controlled and fully supportive.
“Calvium are on top of their game,” says Melissa. “They know what they are doing. We had weekly meetings via Skype, which I loved because I felt so involved with the process. I was constantly updated on where we were with development, but also helped in staying on track with content provision, because Calvium needed linguistic content from me in Spanish and English. We worked with a Google Doc where everybody was able to log into it at the same time. It was transparent, clear and attainable.
“After each weekly meeting, Hanna would follow up with an email outlining agreed points and a to-do list and roles for the next week. As a busy researcher with a demanding job, I loved getting that email because I could check my list, and know and see exactly what I wanted to do.
“As a client, it’s easy to go off-track with app development and ask ‘Well, can we also do this? Why can’t we do it this way?’ Ideas come up, or the app might not match your expectations, which can foster misunderstandings and disappointment. Hanna is gifted at being clear when a feature can’t be added because it’s not in the scope of work or would set us off our timeframe. However, the team always came back with a creative idea or alternative, which made me feel validated — as though Calvium were as emotionally invested in this project as I was.
“This wasn’t just about creating an app. I felt like this was very much about creating a relationship with Calvium, and everybody working together to say, ‘Here’s a societal problem, here’s how we are all going to work hard together to help remediate that problem. We all care and we all want to help each child reach his or her full potential.’ Everybody had suggestions and insight, and that made this experience very positive for me.”
Háblame Bebé was launched on Apple and Google stores in early March 2018. The project recently also earned a $14,000 grant from the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA) for implementation with mothers in New York and Utah, where Melissa is partnering with Dr. Anne Larson (Utah State University) and Dr. Carol Scheffner-Hammer (Columbia University). Since then, we’ve been helping Melissa spec out future versions of the app to support her applications for university federal funding.
“From a research perspective, I have to continue treating Háblame Bebé as a minimal viable product to generate feedback with different communities. Here in Miami-Dade County, most of the Hispanic families I worked with are Caribbean, so I will further test it with Mexican and Mexican-American mothers and continue to improve it to serve families,” says Melissa.
Future functionality should include video conferencing between mothers and educators, automated and animated content, deeper social media integration, and videos for mothers and children who achieve the developmental milestones set out by the US Government.
“I’ve been overwhelmed by the press response to the latest version of the app, and so many people have contacted us asking for interviews. This has been a year and a half of my life. It’s being pushed all over social media, both from the government side, my university and my research partners’ universities.
“Everybody is excited and positive that the app is also available in English, but I’ve made it clear that the project is supposed to serve low-income Hispanic families. In the United States, most immigrants tend – across three generations – to lose their Spanish. There are Hispanic families who are more English-dominant, and this will serve them as well. I think Calvium always had that in their wider vision, for which I’m so grateful.”
I hope that I continue to work with Calvium on all other funding I obtain for this app intervention for mothers. My dream is for all low-income Hispanic families to feel empowered to deliver Language Nutrition to their babies in their native Spanish, to reduce the word gap in low-income Hispanic infants, and to promote their bilingualism. I know that Calvium shares this goal with me.
We’re excited to continue to work on Háblame Bebé in coming months. Find out more about our work creating mobile interventions with our UCAN GO case study, here.