There's an app for that

March 5, 2018

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Using a readily available feature of modern life, Assistant Professor Ashley Darcy-Mahoney is helping parents prepare their children for lifelong success.

Launching this spring, “Háblame Bebé” is a childhood language development app designed for bilingual parents whose primary language is Spanish. Designed by a team that includes Dr. Darcy-Mahoney, the app draws on the same principles used in “Talk with Me Baby,” a program to improve language learning during children’s first months of life, and encourages Spanish-speaking parents to talk to their children in the language they’re most comfortable with.

Parents who speak English as a second language often talk to their children in only basic English phrases rather than their native language. Parents do this with the best intentions, under the false assumption that exposing children only to English will be most beneficial, said Dr. Darcy-Mahoney. In reality, she said, exposure to any language helps babies grow neural connections, and 85 percent of the brain is developed by age three. Because of this early development, the first months and years with parents are more powerful than school in a child’s intellectual growth.

The app, funded by a $75,000 grant the team won through the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration’s “Bridging the Word Gap Challenge,” was created completely in Spanish. Its intent is to teach parents about the benefits of bilingualism and to address the “word gap,” the discrepancy in the amount of language exposure experienced by children from affluent families versus those in low-income families.

By age three, children from low-income families hear an average of 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers. This early disadvantage significantly impacts vocabulary development and long-term academic achievement. The word gap can be closed by improving “language nutrition,” or the range of words babies hear. The app features educational modules and daily routines that offer choices and tracking to help users determine how often they provide language nutrition to their babies.

If we want to prepare babies for lifelong success, well, there’s an app for that.