University of Texas at Austin researchers have received a $3.3 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to conduct a five-year study of speech and language development in bilingual children who speak English and Spanish, comparing those whose language skills are delayed with those who have no delays.
“Spanish speakers are the largest language minority in the United States and make up 79 percent of the school age limited English speaking population,” says psychologist Zenzi Griffin, a researcher for the project. “Yet, it is unclear how children move from first to second language development and which oral language skills transfer between the two languages. At the same time, there is a popular myth that exposure to two languages will slow down language learning in children, especially those who have language impairment.”
Language impairments include difficulty learning and using language rules — in particular grammatical development, usage and vocabulary — in children who have no other disabilities that would explain their language delays.
For the study, Griffin will work with Professor Elizabeth Peña and Associate Professor Lisa Bedore, both with the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders in the College of Communication. About 1,800 bilingual children in Austin will be screened starting in preschool, first grade or third grade.
The study will examine the relationship between learning sounds in words, vocabulary and grammar, to compare performance that stems from linguistic experience with performance that reflects language ability. Of those children, a subset of 330 will be followed through fifth grade. This phase of the study will document year-to-year changes in bilingual children’s oral language skills in both languages and compare them to English-only speakers.
“I would hope that the research will help us understand how children learn language and how two languages interact in a single person,” says Peña. “I expect that knowing this information and the different patterns of bilingual language use in children with and without language impairment will help us to develop more accurate measurements of language ability and will lead to improved intervention for children with language impairment.”