Interview with Dr. Stephanie De Anda of University of Oregon

Stephanie De Anda, PhD CCC-SLP, is an Assistant Professor of Communication Disorders and Sciences at the University of Oregon. Her research interests include understanding language acquisition in typically and atypically developing English- and Spanish-speaking monolingual and bilingual children. As a Latina scholar and Speech-Language Pathologist, Stephanie’s research aims to understand the developmental trajectories of Latinx children in the U.S. She has expertise in several measures of language acquisition in infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Her lab houses an eye tracking system used to examine language processing in young single and dual language learners.

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Your research covers a wide variety of speech and language disorders, how did you become interested in these areas?

My interest grew naturally as my clinical training expanded. In my doctoral level courses, I was being exposed to rich and complex theories about language representation, and in the clinic I was being asked to make clinical decisions about deficits in language processing in our clients. So, I quickly became interested in testing the complex research theories in a clinical context.

You research language acquisition in very young children (infant to preschool). What are the challenges to completing research in this population?

There are many challenges to conducting research in such young children, but the work can be incredibly rewarding. With young children, one of the biggest challenges is the need to maintain their attention and interest. Often, the younger the child is the harder this is to accomplish. Working with young children means you also have to use special instruments, tasks, and strategies to measure the language acquisition process. For example, young infants can’t self-report which words they know so researchers have devised clever ways to measure word Knowledge!

Your lab has eye-tracking technology that can examine language processing in young children. How does this work and how does this open the door to understanding new aspects of language development?

Eye-tracking is an incredibly versatile technology that has been used to describe a variety of cognitive processes in both animals and adults for many years. In the language learning literature specifically, we use eye gaze as a window into how people process both spoken and auditory language. There are a myriad of measures you can extract from eye-tracking data, and we are still developing new ways to analyze gaze behavior as a field.

To illustrate how eye-tracking works for understanding language development in infants, I’ll describe one task we use in our lab: a priming adaptation of the Intermodal Preferential Looking Task. Here, we ask young children to view pictures of objects as they hear them being named. Then, we measure the amount of time they spend looking at each object as a function of the spoken words they heard before each trial. For example, we measure whether children look at the picture of the apple longer when they just heard “banana” versus when they just heard “sock.” This tells us whether children can link words that are part of the same category (i.e., banana and apple are both fruits). This is important because it shows that children are not necessarily learning words in an independent manner, but that they are already organizing their vocabularies as early as the second year of life. That children are able to link “banana” and “apple” tells us something about their lexical and conceptual development. Such an understanding provides a window into the process by which children organize the world and objects around them.

Is this technology used mainly for research or could it be used as a diagnostic tool?

At present eye tracking is primarily used for research and also as an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device for some clients. This is probably because of its relatively high cost and the dearth of research on this topic. It is possible that in the future eye-tracking could become an important diagnostic tool with more research.

How would this technology show atypical language development? If you spot atypicaldevelopment at a very, very young age, what can you do?

In the task described previously, we showed that children with smaller vocabulary sizes were less likely to be able to show evidence of categorization of their words. Specifically, as a group, those children with the smallest vocabularies did not show differences in looking behavior on trials where words had the same vs. different category. Conversely, children with the largest vocabularies were successful on the task. We can hypothesize that children with atypical language development may therefore pattern like the low vocabulary children, such that they would be unsuccessful at demonstrating eye gaze differences for similar and different word pairs, respectively. That means that children with small vocabularies may have a hard time organizing the words they know. The lab is presently undertaking a study with late-talkers so that we can test this hypothesis. We hope that soon we can describe how children with language delay learn words and organize them so that we can inform intervention approaches. The hope is that we become better at identifying language delays as early as possible as a field so that we can provide early intervention promoting the most favorable outcomes.

What has your research shown regarding differences in language processing as a bilingual infant or toddler?

For the most part, our work has shown that bilingual children follow the same course of language acquisition as their monolingual peers. Nevertheless, bilingual children are different from their monolingual peers in that they are tasked with learning two different languages, and this fact means that there are unique aspects of the bilingual experience that lead to developmental differences as well. For example, in one study, we showed that bilingual and monolingual children are just as fast at identifying the meaning of spoken word by the second year of life. In this aspect, learning one or two languages does not influence toddlers’ ability to access word meanings. However, we also showed that within bilinguals, word knowledge in the dominant language supports children’s ability to identify word meanings in both the dominant and non-dominant language, whereas the reverse was not true. This means that within bilinguals, there are links between one language and the other that support word processing across languages. This is different from monolingual children, in which word processing is supported by a single language. So, in some ways monolinguals and bilinguals are similar, but in other ways it is difficult to compare these groups because of the nature of their language exposure experiences and contexts.

What aspect of your research are you most proud of?

I am most proud of the work that gives a voice to underrepresented groups. In the language acquisition literature for example, the typical population of study includes white monolingual English speakers from well-educated families. Yet, speech-language pathologists (SLPs) are tasked with providing equitable services for people of all backgrounds, across socioeconomic levels and linguistic backgrounds. One of my sincere hopes is that my work will to help to fill the gap in the literature on language development in Spanish learners in the United States. My pride in this work comes from my personal experience: as a daughter of Mexican immigrants, I too grew up in a Spanish speaking home in the United States. As a Latina scholar, this work is a way of serving my community.

What is your advice for future SLP graduate students?

My best advice to future SLP graduate students is to embrace uncertainty. The truth is you know so much! Trust what you know. And if you fail at something, remember that graduate school is the best time do so. Nobody is expecting perfection from an aspiring clinician, and failing may be a great way to learn something. You’ll never be in a safer place to learn that in the graduate clinic!

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