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Bridging Languages, Bridging Cultures

Pui-Fong KanPh.D candidate Pui-Fong Kan studies the relationship between language acquisition and culture.
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by Linda Shapiro
Pui-Fong Kan
As the numbers of bilingual children in Minnesota continue to grow at a phenomenal rate, educators and practitioners need to look with a variety of lenses at language acquisition in these vitally important populations. Ph.D. candidate Pui-Fong Kan believes that any research about language development in bilingual children must view the child as an individual in constantly shifting cultural, family, and social environments. But her holistic philosophy also incorporates methodological and statistical analysis as an essential part of the process.

"Pui-Fong has got this extraordinary quantitative gift—mathematical savvy coupled with an array of other talents that allow her to look at how two languages develop both within the brain and socially," says associate professor Kathi Kohnert, Kan’s thesis adviser and mentor. "She brings multiple perspectives to dealing with other cultures."

Currently working with Hmong-English preschool children in Minneapolis, Kan looks at differences in how the children learn language skills over time. "We need to look at the development of both languages—the Hmong home language and the English second language—to determine whether a child who is having difficulties has a language disorder, or whether it’s cultural," says Kan.

Her project is part of a collaboration between the department, Minneapolis Southeast Asian Services (where the preschool is housed), and Reuben-Lindh Family Services. "They set up the environment that enables us to collect data. In turn, they learn more about the cognitive and linguistic development of the Hmong- English bilingual children from our testing. This information will help teachers to further develop educational programs," says Kan.

Kan believes it is important to link the various people who interact with the children in clinical intervention. "We need to make teachers, parents, therapists understand one another—to link everyone and everything together like a bridge," she says. She emphasizes that bilingual children are "linguistically ambidextrous. They come in and out of both languages and both cultures naturally when speaking with others." So it is important to consider a variety of factors in assessing children’s language development, including how they get supported at home and how environment affects the acquisition of language skills.

Through experience, Kan has learned the importance of looking at the whole picture. For instance, while working in a Los Angeles hospital she had a two-and-a-half year old Chinese- American patient who was not talking and had been diagnosed with a language delay. Kan spoke with the family and discovered that the mother did not interact regularly with her child because in Chinese culture adults tend to supervise children’s play rather than participate in it. Kan involved the girl’s older sister in play activities, and the child’s language skills began to improve.

Kan’s cultural awareness comes partly from growing up in a Chinese family in Macao, a multicultural Portuguese colony. She studied linguistics in Taiwan and England, then got a job working with children with communication disorders in the Macao Department of Education. Eager to learn more, she studied speech and language pathology at Central Michigan University and then came to the University of Minnesota, where she received an M.A. in 2002. After completing her clinical fellowship in California, she returned here as a Ph.D. candidate because "the U of M is very strong in child language development. I am fortunate to be in this environment," says Kan.

In her new study, which was awarded a dissertation fellowship from the graduate school, Kan has devised tools to test children’s general cognitive skills and language skills in both languages with Kohnert’s help. "No one had tested the Hmong-English bilingual children’s language skills before. We specifically tested both Hmong and English skills," says Kan. For instance, she employs the "novel word learning" task to look at the cognitive and linguistic development in Hmong-English bilingual children. She pairs a novel object (e.g., part of a needle cushion) and with a novel Hmong word (e.g., tawj, a word with a high falling tone) and a novel English word (e.g., meep) in a play context. How quickly the children can learn which novel labels belong to which objects enables Kan to measure how they learn new words in both languages.

Kan’s openness to Hmong culture has enriched the department in several ways, says Kohnert, who notes that "Kan has taken it upon herself to study the Hmong language and culture. Her intellectual curiosity, her willingness and eagerness to learn have made her an asset to the department." Besides developing a website (www.tc.umn.edu/~kanx0004) on Hmong language and culture “in her spare time," Kan has embraced Hmong students at the University. The department hired a half-dozen Hmong research assistants to work on this project. "Kan has become a driving force in training, mentoring, and learning from them," says Kohnert. “We have all learned from them."