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UW Researcher Spotlight: Naja Ferjan Ramírez

Written by Debra Bouchegnies / August 23, 2021

Curious about a UW researcher?

Welcome to our blog series, “UW Researcher Spotlight.” These posts highlight University of Washington researchers who, as principal investigators—or “PIs”—lead their teams on the path from idea to impact with the support of CoMotion. The resulting innovations have been licensed to industry, spun off as startups, or licensed direct to the user from within the UW.

Stay tuned for profiles about UW researchers from computer science & engineering, life sciences, emerging tech, social sciences and more.

Meet Naja Ferjan Ramírez

Photo of Naja Ferjan Ramirez

Naja Ferjan Ramírez, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor in Linguistics
Distinguished Professor in Language Acquisition and Multilingualism Endowment
Director of Language Development and Processing Laboratory


Patricia Kuhl, Ph.D.
Professor, Speech and Hearing Sciences
Co-Director of Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences

Melanie Fish, Ph.D.
Project Manager

Tiffany Clark, Ph.D.
Education Consultant

Scott Brennan
Business Consultant


UW Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences


When did you file your first Record of Innovation (ROI) with CoMotion?

What technologies have you licensed or spun off?
We created SparkLingTM, a training and certification program that prepares educators to teach children ages zero to five a second language. The program contains research-based teaching strategies, lesson plans, and classroom tools.

What problem does your innovation solve?
The human brain can easily master two languages at the same time, and bilingualism is associated with a myriad of communicative, cognitive, and social benefits. But language learning is time sensitive and, for many young children around the world, access to a second language is still very limited. Harnessing the brain’s prime time for language learning, SparkLingTM prepares educators to ignite second language learning in children zero to five years of age.

What impact are you having?
We tested the SparkLingTM method in two large scale studies in Madrid, Spain. The method is intended for play-based instruction of second languages in infant education centers around the world.  Globally, there are over 1.3B children between the ages of zero and five years, and there are 23M in the U.S. The long term goal is to develop a series of products that will allow all children to successfully acquire two languages.

What funding have you received?
We have received funding from private foundations and the CoMotion Innovation Gap Fund. Additionally, we’ve had multiple CoMotion Mary Gates Innovation Scholars. We are currently in the process of applying for a Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Fast Track Grant through the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

What’s the latest?
We’re currently in the process of designing SparkLingTM Bilingual: a web-based training and certification program that will prepare early learning teachers to support Spanish and English language development in Dual Language Learners (DLLs) in the U.S. DLLs are children who grow up speaking more than one language at home, and they currently represent 32% of young U.S. children. Despite the known advantages of bilingualism, DLLs currently lag behind their monolingual peers in school readiness, putting them at increased risk for academic and health disparities that persist into adulthood. SparkLingTM Bilingual provides high-quality dual language support, which is key to closing the academic achievement gap for DLLs.

Do you have any commercialization advice?
Talk about your ideas to people from outside of your immediate area of expertise. We often got the best ideas when discussing our product work with people who looked at it from a different angle. CoMotion was amazing at facilitating these conversations.

What are the CoMotion services and resources you used and how did they help?
We attended multiple innovation events: the Idea to Plan workshop, multiple trainings, and round tables. Through these events, we practiced our “elevator pitch” in front of multiple audiences. We also received a CoMotion Innovation Gap Fund grant, with which we were able to hire a marketing consultant who organized several meetings with potential business partners.

What do you like most about working with CoMotion?
We had a wonderful CoMotion Innovation Manager and a marketing consultant who knew a lot about our research and helped us take our first steps in product development. They also organized a number of meetings with potential business partners, consultants, and other innovators. I learned so much about business, marketing, and product development, in addition to meeting many wonderful people.

Tell us a fun anecdote about your journey on the path to commercialization.
One time, we had a meeting with someone who used to be a judge on Shark Tank!

Can you share with us a bit more about yourself?
I grew up in Ljubljana, Slovenia. My husband is from the Dominican Republic, and we have three young children. We speak three languages at home.

Learn more:

UW Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences website

SparkLing logo

Image of SparkLing webpage

Figure: Wiring the Brain for Language

Figure: 0-3 Year Old Children Program Track

Boy and didactic toys

Boy is playing and learning with didactic toys

Man with child on shoulders

Mother and son playing together

Mother and son are playing together as part of the creative children therapy

Do you have a great idea? Connect with UW CoMotion

About UW CoMotion: CoMotion partners with the UW community on their innovation journey, providing tools, connections, and acumen to transform ideas into economic and societal impact.