A mind for learning language

Researchers Maria Sera and Melissa Koenig explore how children learn new languages

Sitting on his dad’s lap, three-year-old Henry listens as the researcher asks him, “Donde esta el mido?” Then, pointing to a brightly colored cardboard chute, she instructs him to “Pon el mido aqui.”

With two purposefully unfamiliar objects in front of him, English-speaking Henry puts them both in the chute, not just the mido.

A two-year-old girl looks at a woman giving instructions with researchers watching in the background.
A young language learner listens to instructions in Spanish.

The researcher, a graduate student, reminds Henry in Spanish which toy is the mido, and they try again. She asks him in Spanish to put a nevi and a pivo down the chute. After about three tries, curly-haired Henry listens to her instructions in Spanish, then correctly puts the mido in the chute. Eventually he succeeds with the other objects, too, as the Spanish names start mapping to the items.

The experiment belongs to a body of work by Maria Sera (SAE-rah) and Melissa Koenig (KAY-nig) of the Institute for Child Development that focuses on the relationships between language and cognitive development. Overall, Sera and Koenig seek to gain insight on how young children learn languages and whether their language acquisition processes—and abilities—vary when they are learning their native tongue or a new language.

Since 2010, Koenig and Sera have undertaken several studies that aim to uncover practical knowledge of language learning that could be applied in schools. That might mean finding ways to help English language learners become proficient faster or discovering more effective methods for teaching a new language to English speakers. It’s an especially important effort because by 2030, an estimated 40 percent of students in U.S. schools will be non-native English speakers.

“We know that there is an achievement gap between non-native speakers of English and native speakers of English in schools,” says Sera, a professor and lead investigator in the Language and Cognitive Development Laboratory. “But before we began this work, we thought that young children learning a second language would learn it quickly, and we saw it wasn’t as quickly as we thought. We wanted to find ways to support second-language learners by doing experiments on that.”

Koenig, an associate professor and director of the Early Language and Experience Lab, focuses on how children learn language from other people. She was drawn into the research with questions about how they learn from foreigners.

Children may be simultaneous bilinguals, exposed to more than one language from birth, or sequential bilinguals, who learn one language well before exposure to new ones. Sometime between six and twelve months old, babies stop distinguishing the sounds of all the world’s languages and “hear” only those sounds that occur in their own. The window of native language-learning facility was first documented in studies by Janet Werker and Richard Tees in the early 1980s.

“We have a sense for how first languages are acquired and how that unfolds over the first three to four years of life. If we are presented with a second language, do we learn it as we do the first language? Or are we on to something completely new?” Koenig asks. “We may need a different set of tools to explain how that second language is going to be learned.”

A first language helps in acquiring new languages

In one of Sera and Koenig’s initial experiments, published in the October 2013 issue of Language Learning and Development, they used a variety of tests to see if 48 children, age three to five, could learn words in a foreign language. They also tested whether they retained their new vocabulary several days later.

Sera and Koenig in their lab
Professor Maria Sera, left, and associate professor Melissa Koenig in their lab.

The team investigated whether the children’s vocabulary size in English affected their ability to learn foreign words. Participants learned words for eight items, four in Spanish and four in English. Some of the words were familiar objects, and some were for novel items like the mido.

Sera and Koenig found that the younger, three- and four-year-old preschool children learned the Spanish words more easily when they already knew the English word for the object—although they could learn foreign words for the unfamiliar with more repetitions. The five-year-olds could learn all of the foreign words easily. Children’s abilities to retain those new foreign words over several days also improved with age.

To advance their inquiry, Sera and Koening are currently continuing the language research in another experiment with 64 children ages two and three, which is led by doctoral student Caitlin Cole. It builds on the team’s previous experiments. The team is focusing more deeply on whether participating children like Henry learn Spanish words faster if they master the English words first.

They also want to discover what else might help a child learn foreign words for objects. That could include having more conceptual information about an item, such as how it functions, Koenig notes. Another project involving Sera and graduate student Elizabeth Stephens investigates whether it helps kids ages four to six to learn foreign words associated with each other—body parts or animals, for example—or whether it’s more effective to learn distinct words. So far, preliminary results show that the four-year-olds learn the foreign words a bit more easily when they are unrelated, says Sera.

Next steps

Some of these results could change the way educators approach teaching English language learners, Sera says. Currently, the generally accepted practice is to encourage non-native English speaking families to speak to their children in English as much as possible to help them learn the new language. Instead, parents should continue speaking to their children in their native tongue.

“If we keep finding this facilitation between your first language and your ability to learn words in a second, this has immediate consequences for the classroom,” Koenig adds. “When educators have kids in their classrooms with a minority-language status, you don’t want to ask them to lose that in favor of just focusing on the dominant language. You want a curriculum that supports their strengths in their native language. Keeping their native language strong will only support their acquisition of English.”

Lori Markson, an associate professor of psychology and director of the Cognition and Development Lab at Washington University in St. Louis, conducts similar research and knows Sera and Koenig’s research well.  She calls their work unique in child development—few other researchers investigate foreign language learning quite the way they do, she observes.

Though early, Markson says, the University of Minnesota research could have important social, cognitive, and educational implications for teaching non-native speakers, bilingual students, and students who want to learn a second language.

“If we have some understanding of how this learning is going on, it can help those doing the teaching. I would hope it would help the immigrant child who has to learn a new language,” Markson says. “We also might gain a better understanding from this research of how we go about teaching languages differently for different ages, and at what age we start teaching it.”

Koenig and Sera recently submitted a grant proposal to the U.S. Department of Education to complete more comprehensive and large-scale studies with native Spanish-speaking children, both in the lab and in the classroom. It would continue their existing experiments that involve learning English as well as foreign words and fund further studies on whether it is more effective to learn related or unrelated words simultaneously.

“I’m interested in the role that first language is playing in acquiring words in the second language,” says Koenig. “We have some idea that there is a relationship, and it’s a positive one—it’s not hurting them. I’m very interested in finding out more about the relationship between words you know in your first language and words you’re being asked to learn in a second language.”

Learn more about the work of Maria Sera,  Melissa Koenig, and the Institute of Child Development.

Story by Suzy Frisch | Photos by Dawn Villella | Spring/Summer 2014