The Media as a Language Tool



In the wake of the child to come, I have begun reading and exploring the world of bilingual children and childhoods. I not only have to think about one language, but three, maybe even four. It is a monumental task, and I often fear I might not be up for it, or that I will fail at passing on my mother tongue despite trying very hard. But as the only current source of French in my household, it does fall upon me to find the best tactics and tools for the job. Most of my readers will probably wish to pass down English to their children, and if you are planning on living in Germany for the first five or so years of you children’s lives, you are also facing quite the challenge. There are many facets and fascinating topics in the world of bilingual childhoods, but in the spirit of this issue of Currents, I will shortly address the use of the media as a tool for teaching languages.

From talking Elmos to a wide variety of so-called “interactive” toys, even the world of toddlers has become digitalized. Parents can now choose between old-style toys and the newer technical versions, but how to make that decision? Is the book that reads itself better than the one you have to read alone? One might think that a child of two or three would benefit from being able to have all of his books read to them by a machine, but it does not seem to work that way. In the book How to raise a bilingual child, the author explains it this way: a child, aged 0-5, needs to hear a language a minimum of 20% of its waking hours in order to learn any of it. For best fluency, over 70% is recommended. Talking books and toys, as well as television do not seem to affect that amount. A parent, or teacher, needs to speak the language directly to the child for any of it to get through.

This is not to say that a child will not pick up a few words here and there from the toys, but you should not rely on it too heavily. So is television completely useless for teaching? Again, not really. It becomes much more effective at a later age, when the basics of the language are already ingrained in the child’s mind. So if you have, for example, worked your butt off speaking English and only English to your children, when they reach the age of 5 or so, you can start relaxing and giving the TV a bit more responsibility in the house. In Tracy M’s article, also found in this issue of Currents, she talks about how much her children enjoy watching English movies and series. I find this fantastic, and completely agree that it is a great way to keep in touch not only with the language, but the American culture as well. But remember that your children will be looking up to you for guidance. Tracy passed on her love of English movies to her children. She watched English television with them and they probably had long English conversations about the movies and series afterwards. Nothing helps learning a language as much as speaking it, but having the media on your side makes for a powerful ally.

originally published in Currents Jan/Feb 2010