Screen Time and Bilingual Children
There are many different opinions regarding the effectiveness of screen time for bilingual children. There is no doubt that human interaction is the best way for a child to learn a language. By talking to and interacting with your child in person, singing together, and playing together, they will pick up the language much quicker than looking at a screen.
This doesn’t mean however, that screen time is bad. In fact if used effectively it can help language development.
It just depends on how the screen time is used and how much screen time is allowed.
For parents of bilingual children who aren’t able to provide enough language exposure, the effective use of screen time can actually be a practical and cost effective way to improve the minority language.
Recent research from the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that screen time should be restricted for children under 18 months old. From 18 months to 24 months old, if parents want to, they can introduce occasional snippets of programs. From 2-5 years old, they recommend no more than one hour per day.
Passive Screen Time vs Interactive Screen Time
While watching TV is not an effective way for your child to learn a language, it can aid in children’s language development once they have a good grasp of the language.
Passive screen time should be limited for babies who are not able to speak yet. When I say passive screen time, I mean, sitting a young child in front of a television alone watching the screen.
While sometimes this can give parents a well needed break, many believe that by letting their child watch endless television in the target language that they will become bilingual, when this is not the case.
Sure they may learn to understand what is happening on the screen eventually. But without practising any talking, they will most likely not be able to actually speak the language fluently.
Interactive TV programs, which encourage your child to move and talk back can certainly be used to your advantage and can help with exposure to the target language.
High quality programs with real live people, or cartoons that encourage responses from your child seem to have the best impact. However, again they are best for children who are already starting to speak, as they encourage the use of language.
So for example if you speak English at home but your child is learning Spanish at school, then watching Spanish cartoons or Spanish movies could enforce the language learning.
Our children are growing up in a generation where technology has taken over and it is important that they grow with it. With many new programs and apps developed to aid in the language learning process, screen time can can make a significant impact when used effectively.
Depending on the age of your child there are different ways you can go about using screen time to your advantage.
1. Allow Screen Time in the minority language
If your children are going to watch TV or use the I-pad, choose programs and apps in the minority language. This will give them a little bit more exposure, and they may pick up some new vocabulary and expressions.
2. When possible watch TV with your child
While it isn’t always possible, this is especially important with younger children. If you are going to allow your child to watch TV, try to watch with them. Interact and talk through the program, pointing and explaining what is going on. Interaction is the key.
3. Select the programs they watch rather than letting them choose themselves
By selecting the programs for your child, with a preference of interactive and educational programs, not only will you always know they are watching something appropriate, but you will know that they are learning at the same time.
4. Download educational apps to improve reading and literacy
There is such a wide choice of educational websites online that help with various skills. From reading and spelling, to math and other subjects, children can learn just about anything online. To use these apps and programs to your advantage, ensure that those you choose are age appropriate and interactive. Trying them out yourself beforehand, will allow you to see exactly how your child will be spending their time, and what they will be learning. See our list of apps in Spanish, English, French and Chinese.
5. Make use of situations
Take advantage of times where you might be in the car, travelling, or waiting in line. Turn these situations into educational opportunities by allowing your child to watch programs or use apps in the target language while they wait.
Screen time in moderation is the Key
Nothing can replace real play time, and human interaction. However realistically, in a world filled with technology, restricting all screen time is not going to be possible. When used effectively, screen time can be an advantage to bilingual children to aid in their language development. Screen time itself isn’t bad, it is when there are no limits that it can be an issue. As with anything, moderation is the key.
Check out this post with educational cartoons for kids. Or for more information on screen time for kids check out this comprehensive guide.
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I have three kids and am home with them by myself every morning. The youngest child is just a baby, and requires most of my attention during those mornings. My middle daughter is in a Spanish+Mandarin preschool, and I sometimes speak to her in Spanish (I’m not fluent) and read Spanish books to her.
I know that passive screen time isn’t going to make my middle-child multilingual, but I use the TV to keep her occupied while I am packing lunches, cleaning up from breakfast, getting myself ready, and taking care of the baby.
So, for me, it isn’t a choice between passive screentime in Mandarin or Spanish versus active conversation, it’s a choice between passive screentime in English versus passive screentime in Spanish or Mandarin.
Since I can’t believe that my daughter has _no_ linguistic benefit from watching TV in Spanish & Mandarin, I have her watch Spanish or Mandarin shows whenever I need to have her occupied while I am doing my other tasks.
Thanks for the suggestion to choose interactive TV programs that encourage children to move and talk back and that can help expose them to the target language. My sister and her family have been living in Sweden, and her kids have only had minor exposure to English. They’ve decided to move to the United States, and my sister is worried about how well they’ll be able to transition to school. Hopefully they can find a great TV package that will have lots of engaging shows for her children to watch to aid in language development.
Lisa Lewis, MD
Great advice for promotion of a second language. I am working to get my 8 year old less obsessed with screen time, this is a nice way to meet him half way.
Thanks Lisa. It can be difficult, I know!