It’s been a while! Our moonshot question focused on leveraging neuroplasticity to aid in adult language acquisition. After some revisions and iterations, our idea is to create an interactable app that would introduce infants aged 0-12 months to non-native phonemes in order to increase the length of the critical period and keep phonetics plastic as adults. This is a non-invasive method for increased flexibility in language fluency for adults. We envision creating an app or website which would supply tapes of native foreign language speakers speaking full sentences or various repeated words in their native tongue, while also providing engaging content for the infant to interact with.
After a thorough discussion regarding our expert feedback, we have decided to scrap our second optogenetics idea and instead double down on our phoneme exposure moonshot. We ultimately decided that optogenetics was too risky and ethically unsound to pursue safely. We also scrapped our ideas to induce neuroplasticity in adults using drugs like LSD and/or antidepressants, as they are both illegal and there isn’t clear enough evidence that these drugs can both increase neuroplasticity and have lasting effects, without negative side effects. We instead chose an idea which leverages the natural neuroplasticity that all infants have, as opposed to trying to artificially induce it later in life, something that various experts expressed to us was not only dangerous and unethical, but likely to fail. We want to note our gratitude to Dr. Allyson Mackey and Dr. Gareth Roberts of the University of Pennsylvania for their insights and honest feedback on our ideas.
After some revisions, we settled on an application prototype that we think will best engage an infant and allow them to learn various diverse phonemes. We designed an app to expose an infant to various phonemes from many different languages. This application is designed to be interactive and child friendly -- after reviewing the feedback from our expert reviewers, we realized that it is important that infants are engaged and not merely listening, otherwise they will likely not learn the phonemes. At the same time, we will be maintaining the passive listening portion of the app as well for maximum internalization of the phonemes. This application will be designed for infants and toddlers learning english as their first language.
Our application begins with a splash screen, where the parent can set up the application however they see fit. Here, they are introduced to our mascot, Langy, who will be a recurring theme in our app to keep the kids interested. Plus, Langy is super cute! This first screen will also give parents set track options that were chosen by the app design team (us).
We provide three “tracks” that the infant can follow:
The first is a “European” track, designed to expose the baby to various European languages. We encourage parents to choose this track if they are looking to maximize overlap and cultural value.
After much debate, we settled on Spanish, German, French, Portuguese, and Russian. We chose to have a specific European track because of the diverse set of languages found on the continent, and because typically there is a higher chance of someone who knows one European language also knowing another; this way, we can focus on reaching our goal of letting our participants be able to communicate with as many people as possible, instead of maybe knowing only one or two of the languages spoken daily in a European country. The overlap present between European countries and their speakers is what makes the European track right for parents looking for a culturally overlapping experience for their children later in their lives.
The second is a “Similar” track with languages selected to be phonologically similar to English. We encourage parents to choose this track if they are looking to maximize the total number of languages spoken by their children later in life. This is also a good option for parents who want to expand children’s phonetic knowledge but also allow for some neurological specialization.This is more aptly named a ‘Germanic’ track, but so as to not confuse our participants, we’ve opted for a ‘Similar’ name instead.
Although one day this app could be available to non-English native speakers, we’re keeping in mind that we are marketing directly to parents who only speak English and want their children to be able to expand into multilingualism. As a result of this, the similar languages cater heavily to English-like languages; specifically, we’ve selected German, Dutch, and Swedish. The Germanic languages are quite diverse, and there are officially at least 47 of them, but the most prominent ones are German, English, Dutch, and Swedish; this pulls from both the Northern Germanic languages and the Western Germanic languages. Through this, we hope that this track offers the simplest transfer of knowledge from one language to another, and, as a result, lets the parents maximize the number of languages their children can gain fluency in later in their lives.
The third and final track offered by our group is a “diverse” track - by diverse, we do not mean non-Eurocentric. Rather, we intend to pick languages that differ highly from each other. In this case, parents should choose the diverse track if they are trying to maximally cover their ground, in a sense; participants of this track are most likely to be able to live anywhere in the world, because somewhere nearby there’s a native language that we’re instilling in them from an early age.
The diverse track consists of Spanish, Mandarin, Hindu, and Finnish. With this, we’re hitting vastly different parts of the globe, but ensuring there are very few parts of the globe not covered by the education we can try to train our participants to remember.
Some of the feedback we received from our experts included that passive use cases are helpful, but adding an interactive element can help maintain long term use of the app, and therefore strengthen the benefits gained from using it. Here are some examples of what a toddler could see and interact with during the ‘active learning’ portion of their training. In both cases, there are words spoken from the phone by a native speaker of the language which will map directly to the images on the screen. This word-picture association can help the toddlers internalize the phonemes and meanings while simultaneously maintaining interest.
Passive Learning Section
We still aim to allow for gradual diffusion of information by playing tapes of conversations in languages associated with the babies’ chosen track; we have opted to group this into a passive learning environment, such as while a baby or toddler is in a car or otherwise awake, but not actively focusing on something else.
Together, we hope these two types of learning can instill the phonemes deep in their language centers so that learning these languages later in life are much easier than usual.
Our first progress report page will be categorized by language. This way, you can see how much French or Mandarin etc. your baby is being exposed to. It will show the percent of global phonemes learned (total unique phonemes from non-English languages), percent of new phonemes learned from the specific language you are looking at, and the percent of new vocabulary words your child has encountered during the interactive teaching sessions.
Additionally, there will be a world map page, which will highlight regions you are learning languages from and will slowly start to color the whole map a different color with the more training the infant goes through. Once each region’s phonemes are partially or fully encountered, the map region will become more opaque. This is a fun way for parents to stay engaged and keep track of their own progress and effectiveness as teachers.
Overall, we are excited to have a more clearly defined project path and to further develop this idea in the Foundry Phase II assignment.