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​Kanae Nishi, Ph.D., Uses Personal Experience to Lead the Way in Bilingual Audiology

​​​For years, the number of children who speak English as a second language in the Omaha-metro area has been on the rise. Unfortunately, research on their hearing development was not increasing at the same rate – in fact, it was nonexistent. Kanae Nishi, Ph.D., Director of the Speech Perception and Acoustics Laboratory at Boys Town National Research Hospital, and her team have set out to change that.

Dr. Nishi’s lab is one of five at Boys Town Hospital receiving a portion of an $11.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to create a Center for Perception and Communication in Children, an Institutional Development Award (IDeA) Center for Biomedical Research Excellence.

The lab is working to document developmental trends in speech perception in challenging listening environments for bilingual children with normal hearing. From there, researchers and audiologists will be able to see how bilingual children with hearing loss differ from these baseline data in an effort to improve children’s ability to hear and understand English.

“I realized there are a lot of immigrant children and these kids are part of an important population that needs support, but doesn’t always get necessary service,” said Dr. Nishi. “If their English isn’t so good, then they receive help in school, but if they are fluent bilinguals, they usually do not.”

Right now, the lab’s goal is to fill the hole in the data available by conducting studies with children and adults, with and without hearing loss, both monolingual and bilingual. Participants will complete a number of evaluations including hearing tests, articulation tests and cognitive and language abilities tests.

Because not much research has been done with bilingual children, there are very few methods for testing their language abilities. Fortunately, Elizabeth Peña, professor at the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas – Austin, is the team’s mentor from outside of the organization. Peña is an expert in language impairments in bilingual children and recently developed a language test for bilingual preschoolers.

Internally, Dawna Lewis, Ph.D., Director of the Listening and Learning Laboratory, and Stephen Neely, D.Sc.​, Director of the Communication Engineering Laboratory, will assist with the study. Dr. Nishi will also be collaborating with two post-doctoral researchers, Andrea Treviño and Paula García, who, being bilingual themselves, bring the strong cultural awareness in this team of researchers to the forefront, creating a more comfortable environment for visiting participants.

Because they all are bilingual, these post-docs and Dr. Nishi understand how knowing two languages has a number of benefits, but can complicate speech communication. Dr. Nishi explained how being a bilingual is like being a constant juggler -- A part of your attention is always needed to decide what language you are listening to while trying to understand the message. It may seem like a simple task, but added elements like background noise (a variable of interest in this study) and extra cognitive tasks (ex. taking notes) add layers of complexity.

This study is the first of its kind with this age group, so the possibilities are endless. For now, Dr. Nishi hopes to raise awareness of the unique challenges that bilingual children face and provide evidence to improve the future of hearing services for bilingual communicators.