Natalie Brito of Applied Psychology Launches Mobile App to Promote Bilingualism in Hispanic Children

Natalie Brito, an assistant professor in Steinhardt’s Department of Applied Psychology, has launched Háblame Bebé, a free educational mobile application for iOS and Android operating systems which provides Spanish-speaking parents with the tools to engage with their infants and toddlers in both English and Spanish – with the goal of developing early bilingual learners and reducing the ‘word gap’ in low-income Hispanic children.

“Hispanics frequently encounter linguistic racism,” said  Brito.  “Low-income Hispanic caregivers are often incorrectly told to speak English to their children instead of their native Spanish language, while doing so can actually be detrimental to their child’s language abilities and academic achievement later in life. Not only does Háblame Bebé empower parents with accurate information about bilingual language development, but it reminds them that having a solid foundation in Spanish leads to better language outcomes for the child in both English and Spanish. Hearing native speech sounds is best for early brain development and developing language skills.”

The Háblame Bebé app empowers caregivers by training them on how to use evidence-based strategies in their heritage language. The app includes a developmental milestone check list for parents and guardians to monitor learning and share with their child’s nurse or pediatrician, a daily conversation diary, a bilingual word registry to track the words a child uses in English and Spanish, and videos that discuss bilingual acquisition and its benefits. In addition to other features, the app also sends weekly text messages to caregivers with language strategies and reminders to converse in both languages with their children.

The mobile app aims to support cultural identity and empower Hispanic parents and caregivers to to feel pride in being Hispanic and in speaking Spanish, while promoting bilingualism. By speaking Spanish and passing on their culture, parents learn that they have the knowledge and skills to improve their babies’ academic outcomes. This intervention seeks to change conceptions of bilingualism and promote ‘Language Nutrition’ in the home language. Fundamental to Háblame Bébe is the message that parents are their baby’s first and best teachers – regardless of what language they speak.

In addition to Dr. Brito, the mobile app was co-developed by Dr. Melissa Baralt of Florida International University and Dr. Ashley Darcy-Mahoney of George Washington University, with direct collaboration from the Talk with Me Babycampaign.

Dr. Brito and her team received funding to create and modify the app through the Word Gap Challenge, a competition sponsored by the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources & Services Administration to support innovative solutions that can help promote the early-language environment and address the “word gap,” the large difference in exposure to language for children from low-income families as compared to children from higher-income families. The goal of the challenge was to develop a low-cost, scalable technologically based intervention that drives parents and caregivers to talk and engage in more back-and-forth interactions with their young children (ages 0-4).