Professor wins national Word Gap Challenge

After successfully completing three rounds of competition with more than 100 entries nationally, FIU Linguist Melissa Baralt won the Bridging the Word Gap Challenge. Along with her team, Baralt will be awarded $75,000 for a project that teaches parents how to maximize their babies’ language development.

The national competition, which was sponsored by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), Maternal and Child Health Bureau (MCHB), called researchers to come up with innovative low-cost technological solutions to help reduce the “word gap” – the limited number of words children from low-income families are exposed to as compared to children from high-income families. By age three, children from low-income families hear an average of 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers. This significantly affects their vocabulary development and academic trajectory in the long-term.

FIU Linguist Melissa Baralt, Ashley Darcy-Mahoney from George Washington University and Natalie Brito from Columbia University won the Bridging the Word Gap Challenge.

Baralt created an app to help reduce the word gap and promote bilingualism among Hispanic babies. Háblame Bebé was the only project in the competition to focus on a minority population.

Her decision to concentrate on Hispanic children sprung from Baralt’s research at Miami-Dade day care centers. She observed caregivers – many of whom were immigrants and native Spanish speakers– speaking only in English to the children.

“I asked these women, ‘Why don’t you talk to them in your beautiful, rich, native Spanish?'” Baralt recalls, pointing out that most of the children were also from Hispanic, Spanish-speaking homes. “They responded that they were expected to speak in English.”

Encouraging parents and caregivers to speak their native language to their children can decrease the word gap; it exposes the child to more words because the caregiver has wider vocabulary in that language, and it introduces bilingualism early on, says Baralt, an associate professor in applied linguistics under the Department of Modern Languages, part of the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.

Baralt, also an affiliate member of the Center for Children and Families, has found many pediatricians and teachers often recommend Hispanic parents to speak to their children only in English at home. She discovered many low-income Hispanic mothers in her study agreed.

“Their sociolinguistic identity, their feeling of safety and their pride in using Spanish were low,” Baralt explains. “We as a nation need to change that mentality.”

Completely in Spanish, the app encourages parents and caregivers to speak in Spanish to their children and to help them learn about the numerous benefits of bilingualism.

Melissa Baralt

Háblame Bebé introduces users to “language nutrition” or “nutricion de lenguaje,” which means engaging in language rich-interactions and exchanging loving words (palabras amorosas) with children. Examples of these interactions include talking to the baby, asking the baby questions, narrating what’s going on while having the baby’s attention and using diverse vocabulary and rich syntax.

“When we talk to babies, we are growing neuronal connections in their brains,” Baralt says. “We must begin talking to infants as early as possible – even as early as the prenatal period. Eighty-five percent of the brain is already developed by age three. It is not preschools, caregivers or teachers who are with the baby during the most critical early months of life. It is the baby’s first and best teachers – their parents – that need to talk to them.”

The app provides 20 daily routines users can choose from to engage in language nutrition. Háblame Bebé also features educational modules and a daily talk time input tool that allows users to track how often they give babies language nutrition, as well as their vocabulary growth in both Spanish and English.

“The point of the app is to see language nutrition not as an extra job to do, but as something that we incorporate in every day, simple routines with our babies,” says Baralt. “[The app and the award are] incredibly meaningful for me. We want to maximize every child’s learning potential.”

Baralt’s team includes Ashley Darcy-Mahoney, a neonatal nurse practitioner from George Washington University, and Natalie Brito, a developmental psychologist from Columbia University. The team also partnered with Talk With Me Baby and the Bridging the Word Gap Research Network Group.

Háblame Bebé will be available for free on iTunes and Google Play for Apple and Android phones soon.

To view a demo of the app, click here. To learn more, follow Háblame Bebé on Facebook.