Bilingual Language and Reading

Over half of people around the world learn to speak and read in more than one language. Researchers have discovered that the two languages in a bilingual’s brain never “turn off.” Both languages are always present in the brain, and they interact with one another. How does this interaction influence children’s development as they learn to speak and read? Our lab is interested in how kids develop these abilities.

Why is our research important?

By studying bilinguals, we can learn about how the brain develops for language in children who speak one language or many languages. Our goal is to understand the brain mechanisms behind language and literacy development, and how these mechanisms differ across learners. Our research can also help to understand why some children learn language with no difficulties, while others face obstacles.

Your participation helps educators, researchers, and scientists understand how children learn more than one language. In addition, it helps us improve methods to diagnose language difficulties.

How do we study brain development?

All our studies use assessments and games to help us understand your child’s language and reading development. These games measure skills like vocabulary, grammar, and reading comprehension. We also use fNIRS, a child-friendly neuroimaging method that helps us see how the brain works. Children play fun computer games that ask them to think about sounds, words, and sentences, and we use fNIRS to measure their brain activity while they play.

What will my child do?

When you first come in, we will take some time to talk to your family, show you around, and make sure your child is excited to participate! Then we will play some English games to assess your child’s language and reading skills. If your child also speaks either Spanish or Mandarin, we will play the games in both of their languages. We will also teach your child some easy computer games, and measure their brain activity using fNIRS neuroimaging. While your child is participating, we may also ask you to complete a survey. At the end of your visit, your child will receive a prize, and your family will be compensated for your time. Each session takes between 2-4 hours, with plenty of breaks for snacks.

What is fNIRS? How does it work?

When your child thinks, neural activity increases and oxygen flows into the blood, making it a brighter red. We use light to measure the changing color of the blood and your child’s brain activity.

More specifically, we use fNIRS (functional near infrared functional spectroscopy) light to examine brain function. When we think, increased neural activity will result in an increase of the volume of oxygenated blood flowing to certain regions of the brain. fNIRS shines light into the brain to measure the amount of blood, the change in oxygenation, and where it is flowing.  fNIRS is safe for infants, children, and adults. Our laboratory has successfully used this method to study child bilingualism, attention, and math. Some examples include:

  • Arredondo, M. M., Hu, X., Satterfield, T., & Kovelman, I. (2017). Bilingualism alters children’s frontal lobe functioning for attentional control. Developmental Sciencedoi:10.1111/desc.12377
  • Hsu, S., Ip, K., Arredondo, M. M., & Tardif, T., & Kovelman, I. (2016). Simultaneous acquisition of English and Chinese impacts children’s reliance on vocabulary, morphological and phonological awareness for reading in English. International Journal of Bilingual Education & Bilingualismdoi:10.1080/13670050.2016.1246515
  • Kremin, L., Arredondo, M. M., Hsu, S., Satterfield, T., & Kovelman, I. (2016). The effects of Spanish heritage language literacy on English reading for Spanish-English bilingual children in the U.S. International Journal of Bilingual Education & Bilingualismdoi:10.1080/13670050.2016.1239692

If you are interested in participating in our study, please email bilingual-lab@umich.edu or you can call us (734) 615-6413.