Many parents and caretakers wonder if they can use television and/or movies to teach their children a language (whether it be their baby’s first or second language).

Studies have shown that babies cannot learn a language from watching television, even educational programming, and that screen time before the age of 2 can actually delay language development. Babies learn their first, and any additional languages, through face-to-face interactions with caretakers.

I’ve been reading ALL the studies I can find on this topic, because my partner and I try are expecting our first baby this year — And because we’re planning on teaching our baby a second (and possibly a third) language, we were curious to know what the current studies have to say.

Here’s everything I’ve learned from the current research on babies, television, and language learning. Read on and decide for yourself whether or not to use TV to teach your baby a language!

Most Important Takeaways from this Article:

  • For babies under 2 years old who are learning their first language, interaction with “live” in-person human speakers is crucial for successful language acquisition
  • For babies under 2 years old, there is no evidence that “non-human” speakers (such as on television) are successful in teaching a second language
  • Some studies have concluded that TV viewing before age 2 carries a risk of language delay and the American Academy of Pediatrics has (since 1999) recommended that caregivers avoid letting babies under 2 watch TV

Research: Why Babies Can’t Learn Languages From TV

There is research to suggest that children over the age of 2 can learn vocabulary and other skills from watching certain television shows (such as Dora the Explorer and Blue’s Clues), but there is zero evidence that TV helps develop language in infants under 2. Why is that?

First of all, babies and children are on different levels of cognitive processing and acquire language really differently from one another. Babies go from cooing and gurgling sounds to saying recognizable words in about one year, following a standard developmental language sequence that’s been observed across many cultures.

As I’ll talk about in a minute, babies rely enormously on their caretakers to provide those essential first-ever communicative interactions.

Children, on the other hand, have already come to be a bit more independent in their cognitive abilities, and have the benefit of a foundation that they can then use to learn from other (“non-human”) platforms such as television and movies.

Infants Need Social Interaction to Learn Language

All over the world, families of different cultures teach their languages to their babies in different ways.

In some cultures, parents speak “baby talk” to their babies, while in others, parents don’t change their speech patterns at all to talk to infants…. In some cultures, older siblings are the primary “teachers” of language for their little siblings. Language interactions between caretakers and babies may differ depending on a family’s ethnic or socioeconomic background. However, despite these differences — Almost ALL babies learn to speak the language(s) of their surroundings.

The thing that remains the same across cultures is that the infant has someone (or several someones) who interact with them directly and respond to their earliest verbalizations. This human interlocuter (be it a parent, sibling, or other caretaker) is essential for a young baby’s language development (Source: Lightbrown and Spada, 2013, p 27).

Psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1978) described the importance of social interaction on language development — He believed that language is learned primarily through social interaction, a point of view that has become essential in how we understand second language development.

“Because of their immature symbolic, memory, and attentional skills, infants and toddlers cannot learn from traditional digital media as they do from interactions with caregivers”

Media and Young Minds, from the American Academy of Pediatrics (2016)

Television isn’t Good Enough: What happens when babies are only exposed to TV

There is a unique case that shows us exactly what can happen: In a study by researcher Jacqueline Sachs and her team, a little boy named Jim, who grew up as a hearing child of deaf parents, only heard language from TV. His parents didn’t speak or use sign language with him.

At three years and nine months old, Jim was way below average in his language abilities. He used ungrammatical word order, which only began to improve when he began regularly speaking with a “live” adult.

We can see from Jim’s case that TV alone is not good enough for teaching language to an infant.

In other studies of infants learning more than one language, non-human interaction has also shown to be ineffective for learning.

In one example: Between 9 and 10 months of age, different groups of American babies were exposed to either in-person Mandarin Chinese speakers, or pre-recordings of those same speakers.

The babies that listened to the recordings, with no interpersonal contact, had no effect. The infants exposed to live speakers showed phonetic learning (Kuhl, Tsao, and Liu 2003).

In another study of toddlers learning vocabulary from television, babies 15-24 months learned vocabulary best when an adult speaker was involved in the process:

“The results of this study have important implications for language acquisition. It appears that mere exposure to language is insufficient for teaching language to initial language learners. Rather, children must be actively engaged in the process with responsive language teachers.”

Can Toddlers Learn Vocabulary from Television? An Experimental Approach (Krcmar, Grela, and Lin, 2007)

In the case of Jim above, we saw the detrimental effects that occurred with zero “live” language communication and only TV to learn from — But in most households, babies will watch television (or screens of some kind) in addition to interacting with their parents or caregivers.

90% of parents have reported that their infants under 2 years old watch some form of electronic media. Is there a risk of language delay in these cases? Let’s see what the research says…

Language Delay Risks for Babies who Watch TV

It can seem pretty impossible these days for parents to keep their babies from watching screens — especially when we adults seem to be staring at screens ourselves all day!

But there is mounting evidence that suggests we should do our best to limit the screen time of our babies, especially before age 2.

In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended in 1999 and then reaffirmed in 2011, in 2013, and in 2016 that “pediatricians should urge parents to avoid television viewing for children under the age of two years.”

Part of the reason for this is the concern for language delay, which some research shows may be tied to the amount and content of television viewing (although there really need to be more studies done in this area — results are not conclusive).

A 2015 study in Korea of 1,178 toddlers concluded:

“Two-year-old Korean toddlers’ average daily TV watching time of more than 2 hours was related with language delay.”

Byeon H and Hong S (2015)

In this study, toddlers who watched 2-3 hours of TV had 2.7 times more risk of having a language delay than those who watched less than 1 hour of TV a day. Toddlers who watched more than 3 hours of TV a day had 3 times the risk of language delay.

Similar conclusions were drawn from all kinds of empirical studies across the world, in different cultures including: a 2008 study in Thailand, a 2009 study in the US, and a 2013 study involving Hispanic infants and toddlers, among others.

Even if babies aren’t watching TV directly, there is some evidence that shows having TV on “in the background” can also have negative effects on language development as it interrupts the baby’s ability to discern real-life voices and to have meaningful in-person interactions:

“Having a television on within earshot of young children diminishes their exposure to adult words, their own vocalizations, and the conversational turns in which they engage.”

Audible Television and Decreased Adult Words, Infant Vocalizations, and Conversational Turns (2009)

Alternatives to TV for Teaching a Language to Babies

For a child’s first language, we’ve seen above that it really is crucial for babies to learn from real-life human caretakers, versus television or other screens. TV is not a substitute for social interaction when it comes to learning a language.

The same goes for babies learning a second or third language, but caretakers may not have the option of speaking another language to their babies.

So what alternatives to TV can parents who want to teach their babies a second or third language use? Here are some ideas:

  • Hire a bilingual babysitter or nanny: If you have the option of hiring a babysitter or nanny who can speak to your baby several times a week, this can really help. All babies are born with the ability to distinguish precise sounds that differ between languages, but they eventually lose this ability.
  • Read to your baby in another language: Even if you only have a basic grasp of the target language, you can teach your baby vocabulary words by reading to them. It’s never too early to start reading to your kids for their linguistic development!
  • Join a bilingual parenting group: You could do some searching in your area (try Facebook) for a bilingual parenting or play group. This will allow you to contact other people who are trying to teach their babies the same language, to meet up with them, and to share resources!
  • Go to a cultural center in your community: Our community has several community centers, like a French cultural center, and a Greek community center. These organizations always have all sorts of free and cheap events you can attend to expose your baby to the target language — For example, the French cultural center in our city has a weekly French story time group for babies!
  • Learn songs in the target language and sing them to your baby: Babies under 2 don’t appear to learn from pre-recorded voices but they do respond to and learn from your voice. Teach yourself some songs and nursery rhymes in the language you want to teach and repeat, repeat, repeat them to your baby.

All of these ideas are specifically for infants and toddlers, but as your children get older, more and more options for language-learning resources will open up to you!

Can Children (older than 2) Learn Languages from TV?

Once children are older than 2 years old, there is evidence to suggest that TV can be beneficial for building a child’s vocabulary, but only after they’ve already built a language foundation through real-life interactions with caring and attentive adults.

Children can also learn elements of a second or third language by watching TV but there is no evidence that shows that a child can become fluent in another language without meaningful social interaction with another speaker of the target language.

I hope this helps you! Good luck to everyone trying to teach their babies a first, second (or third or fourth!) language 🙂 Check out some of my other articles to learn more about how to raise a bilingual child, based on current research.


SOURCES

If you’d like to learn more about this topic and get access to other language learning resources, you can find a full list of this website’s sources here.

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Chonchaiya, W., & Pruksananonda, C. (2008). Television viewing associates with delayed language development. Acta Pædiatrica (Oslo), 97(7), 977-982. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1651-2227.2008.00831.x

Christakis, D. A., Gilkerson, J., Richards, J. A., Zimmerman, F. J., Garrison, M. M., Xu, D., Gray, S., & Yapanel, U. (2009). Audible television and decreased adult words, infant vocalizations, and conversational turns: A population-based study. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 163(6), 554-558. https://doi.org/10.1001/archpediatrics.2009.61

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Krcmar, M., & Cingel, D. P. (2019). Do young children really learn best from the use of direct address in children’s television? Media Psychology, 22(1), 152-171. https://doi.org/10.1080/15213269.2017.1361841

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