Parents and caretakers may wonder whether or not it’s possible for their children to learn a language from watching TV. In my research as a soon-to-be parent, and a language education graduate student, here’s what I’ve learned.
Studies have shown that children cannot learn a language from television and movies alone. Only face-to-face social interaction with “live” speakers allows children to fully learn a language. TV can be beneficial for learning new vocabulary but only after a child has developed a language foundation.
For television to be truly effective in teaching a child a language, it needs to be watched in addition to meaningful social interaction with other speakers of that language. In most cases, this means parents will need to help guide their children, and not rely solely on TV to teach them how to speak another language fluently.
Alternatives to using TV to teach a child a language are listed at the end of this article (for both parents who speak the target language and for those who don’t!).
Parents should be mindful that relying on TV to teach your child a language would mean that the child would have to watch A LOT of television in order for it to have a chance of being effective — which is not currently recommended and can have negative impacts on healthy development, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The information in this article applies to children over 2 years old — As it’s currently recommended that babies under 2 years old avoid television completely (a topic I’ve broken down in another article you can find here).
Myth: Children Can Become Perfectly Fluent By Watching TV
“New data [indicates] that children require a social setting and social interaction with another human being to trigger their computation skills to learn from exposure to language.”— International Mind, Brain, and Education Society
Anecdotally, we all know of kids who have learned a few Spanish words from Dora the Explorer, but who we wouldn’t exactly call “bilingual.” If you’ve ever seen Dora, you know that there isn’t really tons of Spanish being spoken throughout the episodes.
But even if children were to watch hours of TV exclusively in Spanish, research tells us that this would not be enough for them to become bilingual.
— At least not without the additional support of someone speaking Spanish with them regularly.
Social Interaction is Key to Learning a Language
Lev Vygotsky, a psychologist whose work greatly influences how we understand modern language acquisition, theorized that languages are learned through social interaction with others. Without meaningful interactions with a real person in the target language, a child cannot truly and properly learn it.
Basically, American babies who were exposed to in-person Mandarin speakers learned Mandarin phonemes (or how to distinguish Mandarin sounds from English sounds), while babies who were only exposed to audio or video of Mandarin speakers learned nothing.
This was a study on babies, not children, but the same idea applies to all humans in that cognitive learning is tied to social interactions — It’s simply how our brains work. As Patricia Kuhl says in her talk, “It takes a human being.”
There is, so far, no documented empirical data that proves a child can learn a language at a high proficiency entirely from TV.
Learning a Language with TV = Way Too Much TV?
Even if we were to suppose that it might be possible for a child to learn a language entirely from television, the amount of television in the target language that they would have to watch each day would be huge, and would go against the American Academy of Pediatrics‘ daily recommended amount of media time for children.
One paper on childhood bilingualism states that “A minimum threshold has been suggested, such that children will not acquire a language if it represents less than 20% of their input” (Hoff and Core, 2013).
If a child needs more than 20% of their total daily language input to be in the target language, we can imagine just how many hours of television that would require — which for most parents, just wouldn’t be practical or desirable.
Instead, parents should stay within the recommended amount of screen-time for their children and look for alternative, more interactive language-teaching activities to do (more ideas at the bottom of this article!).
When and How TV Can Be Helpful
All of this isn’t to say that TV can’t be helpful at all for language learning. There have been studies that show — for older children — that high-quality, educational programs can be good for teaching them new vocabulary words.
It’s just that we cannot expect children to become totally bilingual, or to learn their first language for that matter, from screens alone.
And when children do watch TV, it’s recommended that they do so with an adult who can explain unfamiliar words or content.
Linebarger and Walker (2005) conducted a study with two-and-a-half-year-old monolingual children to determine how television affected their learning of new vocabulary words. What they found was interesting.
The kids did learn new words, but not all kid’s shows proved to be equal:
“Watching Dora the Explorer, Blue’s Clues, Arthur, Clifford, or Dragon Tales resulted in greater vocabularies and higher expressive language scores; watching Teletubbies was related to fewer vocabulary words and smaller expressive language scores; watching Sesame Street was related only to smaller expressive language scores; and viewing Barney & Friends was related to fewer vocabulary words and more expressive language.”
Let’s look at why some of those kid’s shows were more successful than others in the next section…
BEST (and Worst) TV Shows for Children Learning a Language
According to Linebarger and Walker’s (2005) study, the following TV shows are ranked from most to least successful in their ability to teach children new vocabulary words.
It’s important to note that this study was published in 2005 and since then, tons of new kid’s shows have been created! But if we can look at the reasons WHY these shows were successful (or not), we can then apply those ideas to the new children’s TV shows that are out right now.
[NOTE for second-language learning: Depending on the child’s desired target language of course, the show would need to be watched in that particular language.]
1. Blue’s Clues and Dora the Explorer
In this experiment, one group of kids watched Blue’s Clues and Dora the Explorer combined and then were compared to non-viewers.
Watching these two shows resulted in 13.30 more vocabulary words (at 30 months old) and an increase in the rate of growth in vocabulary words of 1.35 words per month (compared with the children who didn’t watch these shows).
The authors offered this explanation for why the shows worked:
“Programs such as Blue’s Clues and Dora the Explorer, where onscreen characters speak directly to the child, actively elicit participation, label objects, and provide opportunities to respond, were positively related to expressive language production and vocabulary in our sample.”— Linebarger and Walker (2005)
It seems that TV shows that work best for children learning new vocabulary are the ones that mimic “real” conversations — where the characters in the show speak directly to the child who’s watching, and ask questions.
2. Arthur and Clifford
A combined viewing of the TV shows Arthur and Clifford was related to 8.60 more vocabulary words at 30 months old, and a vocabulary growth rate increase of 0.61 words per month (compared with non-viewers).
Kids who watched Arthur and Clifford also used 1.10 more single and multiple-word phrases at 30 months old (compared to the non-viewers).
Why are these shows successful at teaching new words? The authors of the study explained:
“Programs such as Arthur, Clifford, and Dragon Tales may support language development given their storybook-like nature. These programs have a strong narrative, are visually appealing, and contain opportunities to hear vocabulary words and their definitions, see the visual representation of the vocabulary word, and see interactions between characters modeled.— Linebarger and Walker (2005)
Reading storybooks has long been connected to learning new vocabulary. Perhaps the strength of the shows mentioned above is their storybook-like narrative, which really draws kids in visually — just as the characters of a book might do.
3. Barney & Friends and Teletubbies
It’s not good news for these two kid’s shows in terms of vocabulary learning. According to this study, watching Barney & Friends and Teletubbies was negatively related to vocabulary acquisition.
Sadly, “watching Barney & Friends was associated with 11.68 fewer words at 30 months when compared with nonviewers” and “Viewers of Teletubbies knew 10.18 fewer words at 30 months of age when compared
Barney & Friends
“Barney & Friends was negatively associated with vocabulary acquisition but positively associated with expressive language production.”— Linebarger and Walker (2005)
There isn’t an explanation in the study as to why Barney and Friends was negatively associated with vocabulary learning, but it is interesting that expressive language production during play increased!
As someone who watched a lot of Barney as a kid, my guess is that seeing other live-action children using language meaningfully in songs, through play, and with easily comprehensible storylines — may lead to children trying to mimic what they’ve seen through their own play.
“Viewing Teletubbies was negatively associated with both vocabulary acquisition and expressive language use.”— Linebarger and Walker (2005)
There have been other studies as well on vocabulary learning and Teletubbies such as Grela et al. (2003) which found that children also had issues learning new words from this show.
Interestingly, and what I find rings true from my own childhood experiences, the authors think that it might be because shows like Teletubbies have too much of a “loose narrative structure.” When the story is scattered and complex, children can’t follow it as easily and vocabulary learning isn’t reinforced.
Also, the characters in this show use baby talk — not modeling the words as they’re usually spoken by adult speakers.
Shows that don’t have an easy-to-follow narrative, or that use too much unnatural language, may be less effective vocabulary teachers for children.
4. Dragon Tales, Sesame Street, and Disney movies
According to Linebarger and Walker (2005): “Watching Dragon Tales, Sesame Street, or Disney movies was unrelated to vocabulary acquisition.” No increase and no decrease.
There could be a few reasons for this. Sesame Street at the time of this study had a more irregular structure, with different changing vignettes throughout the show, which wasn’t as conducive to vocabulary learning. The format of the show has since changed, and other studies have found that kids do learn vocabulary from Sesame Street.
The authors said that their study on Disney movies was too broad, and that further studies would need to be done on individual Disney movies to learn more.
Language Learning Alternatives to TV
Many parents turn to TV as an option for language learning because they themselves aren’t fluent in the target language, or they don’t think they have time to teach it.
Hopefully one or two of the alternatives to TV on this list can help you out.
Any of these options would provide a more interactive and meaningful, and therefore more effective, experience with the target language than TV.
Set up Play Times with Other Speakers (In-person or virtually)
Search local forums, Facebook groups, or any other resources you can think of to find other people in your area who speak the target language you’d like your child to learn. Go to meetups and play groups to befriend other parents and so that your kids can make friends and practice their language skills. Ask other parents for help, advice, and resource ideas!
Play Memory Bingo, Scrabble (and other board games!)
At home, play games with your kids that utilize the target language. It doesn’t have to be memory Bingo or Scrabble, but this is one way of learning and reinforcing vocabulary words. There are Scrabble versions out there for young kids that come in many different languages. Try to keep things fun, light, and interactive.
Bilingual Babysitters and Daycare
If you have the chance, hire babysitters and/or take your child to a daycare where the target language is spoken.
READ in the Target Language
We all know the importance of reading to our children. Many studies have proven the language learning power of reading to children regularly. So even if you’re not fluent in the target language, take up the task! Read to your child and learn new vocabulary alongside them.
Visit Community Culture Centers
If you have community or cultural centers in your area, visit them and you may be surprised at the events that they have to offer — usually for quite cheap or free. Examples of cultural events that you might be able to attend include language classes, festivals, and potlucks. Remember that language learning is social and any chance for your child to meet and interact with others who speak the target language is beneficial.
Sing in the Target Language
You don’t have to be an amazing singer. Teach yourself some nursery songs and rhymes in the target language and repeat them regularly around the home so that your children can hear them, remember them, and learn vocabulary from them. Song is an amazing way to remember vocabulary.
Do Chores in the Target Language
Make learning new words meaningful to your child’s life by using them in everyday activities, such as doing the laundry, cleaning up, or making the bed! You’re guaranteed to repeat these types of words often, and then they’re more likely to stick in your child’s memory.
You could record conversations that you have with your child in the target language, maybe have them organize a play or a musical to be filmed. Sometimes it’s helpful for language learners to hear themselves in the target language so that they can recognize their own pronunciation errors (depending on their age). Just be gentle and careful not to make your child feel embarrassed or upset about making errors.
Good luck and happy language learning 🙂
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.