Dr. Anny Castilla-Earls earns NIH grant to examine language loss in bilingual children

At a time when movies like Hidden Figures are recognizing women for their contributions to STEM fields, Dr. Anny Castilla-Earls is breaking ground as a Latina woman conducting innovative research in the field of speech language pathology.

In December 2016, Dr. Castilla-Earls, associate professor of communication sciences and disorders, was awarded a grant to examine language loss in bilingual children from the National Institute of Health for over $800,000 – and she earned the prestigious grant on her first submission. This is a rare accomplishment considering most research grants require more than one submission before they are awarded.

Dr. Castilla-Earls’ grant is a K23 Award, a designation meaning that it is intended to support the career development of individuals with a clinical doctoral degree who have made a commitment to focus their research endeavors on patient-oriented research.

“It’s a research and training grant,” says Dr. Castilla-Earls. “The NIH supports my training to become an independent researcher and provides me with research funding.”

She will be working with three mentors from UH: Dr. David J. Francis, director of the Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation, and Statistics at UH; Dr. Jack M. Fletcher, Interim Associate Vice President for Research Administration at the University of Houston and professor of psychology; and Dr. Arturo E. Hernandez, Director of the Laboratory for the Neural Bases of Bilingualism Developmental, Cognitive, & Behavioral Neuroscience and professor of psychology at UH. In addition, she will work with Dr. Nonie K. Lesaux, Juliana W. and William Foss Thompson Professor of Education and Society at Harvard University. 

This is Dr. Castilla-Earls’ second NIH grant in as many years. In 2014, while working as an assistant professor at The State University of New York – Fredonia, the NIH awarded her a grant to study language assessment in bilingual children. A year later, in August 2015, Dr. Castilla-Earls joined CLASS’s faculty.

“My decision to come to the University of Houston was made, in part, because of the support offered for research activities, the potential for mentoring, and the accessibility to bilingual research participants,” she says.

Dr. Castilla-Earls has had a long interest in studying the difference between what is – and isn’t – normal language acquisition in bilingual children. A native of Colombia, she attended Universidad del Valle in Colombia where she earned her B.S. and M.S. in speech-language pathology and bilingual education respectively. She then went on to earn her Ph.D. in Speech-Language Pathology from the University of Toronto.

At UH, she is specifically examining first language loss in young children who are Spanish-English bilingual.

According to Dr. Castilla-Earls, there are a variety of family and community dynamics to consider, but often times a young, bilingual child begins life hearing and speaking Spanish in their home.

However, when they begin school or socializing with other people in their community, they begin to learn and use English with more and more frequency.

“As the child is immersed in an English environment, they are no longer expanding their Spanish language skills, this process is called ‘language loss’ or ‘incomplete acquisition’,” she says.

During this time when a child is navigating between the two languages, it can be difficult to determine whether some of the language characteristics a child may be presenting are because they are in a time where there are shifts in language proficiency between Spanish and English, or if it is a language disorder that needs to be addressed by a speech-language pathologist.

This is the answer that Dr. Castilla-Earls seeks to find during the course of her five-year grant. She will spend this first year analyzing data about bilingual children that is already housed at UH’s Texas Institute for Measurement, Evaluation and Statistics Center.

Next year, she will begin finding approximately 100 children, aged 3-5, to participate in a longitudinal study.

“At that age, they haven’t began attending school yet, so the process of ‘language loss’ likely hasn’t begun,” she says.  She will follow those kids as they enter school and as English begins to become their language of choice.

“This research is important because if we can identify bilingual children who truly have a language disorder at an early age, we can begin moving forward with a treatment plan quickly,” says Dr. Castilla-Earls. “As a female, and as a Latina, I am proud to have earned this award and to also demonstrate that important research is being conducted by people from all backgrounds.”

- Monica Byars