Stanford student examines bilingual behavior of children at Texas preschool

Stanford senior Alma Flores-Perez studied a group of bilingual children at a Spanish immersion preschool in Texas to understand how they distinguished between their two languages.

As the daughter of two Mexican immigrants, Stanford senior Alma Flores-Perez grew up fascinated with languages and bilingualism in her hometown of Austin, Texas, where many locals, including herself, are raised speaking two languages: Spanish and English.

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Graduating senior Alma Flores-Perez reflects on her time at Stanford.

That lifelong interest sparked her to research how other young bilingual children form their identities and distinguish between their two languages.

Flores-Perez is among this year’s graduates. After graduation, she will be doing a year-long community impact fellowship through the Haas Center for Public Service.

For the past year and a half, Flores-Perez, who is double majoring in linguistics and Iberian and Latin American cultures, has worked on an independent research project that is now part of her senior thesis, “Voy a decir a la maestra – Navigating, reinforcing, and challenging language boundaries in a Spanish-immersion preschool.”*

“Children are often thought to not be as aware of how they are expressing themselves,” Flores-Perez said. “But in reality, they do a lot of intuitive and fascinating things with language in terms of how they form their identities as bilingual speakers.”

During five weeks in the summer of 2018, Flores-Perez observed a class of 23 students, aged 4 and 5, in a Spanish-immersion preschool in Austin. She made detailed recordings of the way children talked and their interactions with each other. She also interviewed the students’ parents as part of her research.

Flores-Perez found that some of the children she studied would police each other’s speech. A small group of students would call out other students who spoke or slipped into English when they talked in Spanish, she said. This language policing happened even though the school’s teachers did not punish students for speaking English or force them to speak exclusively Spanish.

“In the U.S., there is a very clear boundary that has been set between English and other languages,” Flores-Perez said. “This in some cases plays out negatively with comments like ‘This is America. You should speak English.’ The children I studied used similar ways to discourage each other from speaking English.”

For example, in one instance Flores-Perez watched one child slip into Spanglish – a hybrid of Spanish and English. The child used the English word “bacon.” Another student then corrected him on his use of the word and told him that the right word was “tocino,” the Spanish translation for bacon.

In another instance, two students talked in Spanish about how it’s hard for them to draw “French fries,” a phrase they said in English. Another student corrected them and said that French fries are “papas fritas” in Spanish.

Examining perceptions about bilingualism

Flores-Perez’s work is important for examining how children develop perceptions about bilingualism, said Penny Eckert, a professor of linguistics in the School of Humanities and Sciences and Flores-Perez’s advisor.

“Alma’s research is giving insight into how small kids develop ideas about their language ideology and bilingualism,” Eckert said.

She said Flores-Perez’s study adds to a body of research that could help people rethink how children develop language and the ways they practice it in bilingual environments.

“Inside a speaker’s brain, languages are not separated into neat boxes,” Flores-Perez said. “As a multilingual speaker, you inherently have access to this larger repertoire of speech. I think those speakers should be supported in accessing that entire repertoire in their daily lives.”

Flores-Perez said she would like to see schools allow bilingual students to speak and use all of their languages in their studies, instead of being forced to use one over the other.

Flores-Perez said the research has challenged her academically and personally.

“Self-directed research can be really intimidating, and keeping up with your own deadlines can be hard,” Flores-Perez said. “But engaging with this research has been a crucial part of my undergraduate experience.”

Going forward, Flores-Perez said she hopes to incorporate anthropology, linguistics and education at a graduate program that she plans to pursue.

“With bilingual education becoming more prevalent, I would love to help improve bilingual programs for everyone who attends them,” Flores-Perez said.

Flores-Perez has been awarded with a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, awarded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to promising undergraduates with diverse backgrounds. This academic year, she has also been one of eight undergraduate Hume Humanities Honors Fellows at the Stanford Humanities Center.

*Voy a decir a la maestra = “I’m going to tell the teacher.”

Media Contacts

Alex Shashkevich, Stanford News Service: (650) 497-4419, [email protected]