Maria Sera by the Mississippi RiverProfessor Maria Sera

The language factor

Professor Maria Sera explores multilingual development in young children

Maria Sera was a second-grader when she came to the United States. As the only Spanish-speaker in her 1960s classroom, she was placed in a special education section, where the pace allowed her time to look up words in her dictionary.

One day she realized that she was no longer looking up words and understood everything. She raised her hand.

“Mrs. Brown,” she told her teacher, “I can speak English.”

Her teacher was so happy she cried.

Today Sera is one of the leading scholars in the world on the relationship between language and cognitive development. As a professor in the Institute of Child Development (ICD), her current projects focus on the acquisition of second languages by preschool children and on the relation between knowledge of classifiers and categories for speakers of Chinese, Hmong, and Japanese.

In part because of her own experience, Sera came into the field assuming that learning languages must be very easy for children. The view at the time, she says, was that “everything was innate,” including ease with learning language.

“When I started to study it and do research, I thought I would find that language wasn’t a factor in the achievement gap,” she says. “But that wasn’t the case.”

Sera’s research spurred her on to more complex studies. It also caused her to reflect on the factors that made learning language seem easy for her.

Sparking curiosity

Sera came from a family that valued education, and she attended school through many transitions. She left Havana with her father shortly after the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, and her mother and younger sister eventually joined them. From New York they moved to Kentucky, where her father worked at a Veterans Administration hospital. Later he joined a busy pediatrics practice in Indiana, where Sera graduated from high school.

After beginning college in Florida on an athletic scholarship, Sera soon moved back to Indiana and majored in psychology. She quit golf as a senior so she could take afternoon classes. One was a psychology class with Linda Smith, a distinguished professor in children’s perceptual and cognitive development.

That sparked her curiosity.

“I was reading Concepts and Categories, a book by Edward Smith and Douglas Medin, assigned in [Smith’s] class, and I couldn’t believe you could make a living doing these interesting experiments with kids!” Sera remembers with a laugh.

“I had always done well in languages and linguistics,” she continues. “Then I realized there was a total absence of cross-linguistic research in this area. Because I was a native speaker of Spanish, I began with that.”

Sera went on for her Ph.D. in developmental psychology at Indiana University with Smith as her adviser and has been designing her own interesting experiments ever since. Her first position took her to Iowa, where she met her husband. Then in 1989 she joined the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development.

“Here I got to work with people studying development, cognitive development, and—take Michael Maratsos, for example—things like economy, power, culture, and the theory of childhood,” she says.

 A global lab

Sera’s lab, the Language and Cognition Lab located in Peik Hall, is an unassuming place where children and their parents can come to participate in studies conducted by Sera, her students, and colleagues. Sera hastens to add that she can really conduct research anywhere—she has collected data in Asia, for example—because her equipment is basically a laptop and software.

In one study with colleague Melissa Koenig, they learned that children are very sensitive to sound structure. So Sera went on to work with another colleague—Al Yonas, who works mostly in visual perception—to develop audio training to help people hear sounds they don’t have in their own languages.

The first version is for native Spanish speakers learning English, Sera explains, for whom there is often difficulty hearing vowel differences. She demonstrates a computer game in which a language learner views a series of pictures and words to describe them; then they are shown the pictures in pairs and asked which is X? Cot or cat? Ship or sheep?

She will soon work with a visiting scholar from China on another version that focuses on the consonants R and L.

With a quiet style and sparkle in her eyes, Sera has taught undergraduate and graduate courses, mentoring the next generation of scholars and publishing widely. In addition to her work in ICD, she’s a faculty member of the Center for Cognitive Sciences and serves on the graduate faculty of the linguistics program.

From Spanish, her cross-linguistic research moved on to German, French, American Sign Language, Mandarin Chinese, Hmong, and Japanese—motivated most often by work with her students who spoke those languages.

Individual attention

“ICD is good, and it’s small,” says Sera. “It has always been distinguished for its work on language development, and the individual attention you get here is substantial. I get to work with my students to develop their lines of research.”

For example, a recent doctoral grad came to the University’s graduate program in cognitive science as a primatologist. Nicole Scott engaged Sera along with neuroscience professor Apostolos Georgopoulos, who works at the Veterans Administration Medical Center. Together they used MEG technology (magnetoencephalography) to look at what happens in the brain when people are doing non-language tasks to see if language areas are active—

“And they are!” Sera says happily. “That is an example of work I never would have done without the student.”

It’s also an example of Sera’s growing interest in exploring how language evolved and in looking more at functional aspects.

A national resource

Sera has just completed a year of intense work on a national report. She was one of 20 experts invited to serve on a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel on facilitating language learning for non-native speakers, including research, practice, and policy. It involved meetings in Washington, D.C., where the entire panel stayed in the same hotel, ate breakfast together, then crossed the street to the NAS offices to argue, work through all the issues, and write their report.

“There’s a real disconnect between basic research in developmental psychology and education, and also between research on language acquisition by children through age 5 and by children in grades K–12,” Sera observes.

Now she’s turning her attention to organizing the next ICD symposium to be held this fall. She and Koenig are collaborating, and the topic is language origins and functions.

“Fun!” says Sera with a grin.

Learn more about Maria Sera and the Institute of Child Development.

Watch for information about the Minnesota Symposium on Child Psychology to be held this fall.

Story by Gayla Marty | July 2016