Can children learn language from television?

Curious George, Role Model. From PBSKids.org.

Curious George, Role Model. From PBSKids.org.

My nephew is currently snuggled up with a Curious George plushie he got for his birthday. Let’s revisit what his love of the cartoon character might have meant for his language, in this post from July 11, 2013 originally called “Life imitates art: Child imitates monkey”.

Imitation of television is certainly dangerous…to my sister’s sanity. My four-years-old-tomorrow nephew, Malcolm, is currently fascinated with Curious George. It’s not enough to watch the same episodes over and over (George follows the tradition of test chimps by going into space; George builds a dam with an umbrella and raincoat); Malcolm brings George to life 24-7 in the form of monkey noises. His accuracy is actually quite impressive; there have been moments where I have to turn around to check whether I’m hearing my nephew or the television.

In a way, this is quite promising: preschoolers do learn language from television. But language learning does depend on which show you’re watching. Curious George obviously backfires if a child picks up what the monkey is saying, instead of any of the other characters. Even shows that parents might think are good for the vocabulary, though, might turn out not to be. When 50 Kansas families kept television viewing logs for two years of infancy and toddlerhood, researchers were able to track the impact of different shows on the words children recognized (their receptive vocabulary) and the ones they could speak (their expressive vocabulary). Blue’s Clues and Dora the Explorer turned out to be reasonably good for language, helping children both recognize and speak more words. Teletubbies was a mild linguistic disaster, hurting both measures of language. As for Sesame Street, the classic, it didn’t help children recognize more words and actually led them to speak fewer of them.

Before Sesame Street fans get up in arms (or Teletubbies-hating parents leap for joy), remember that these are merely averages, and it’s the  behind the averages that hint at how a given television show might influence your child’s language development. Blue’s Clues and Dora might be so successful because they are deliberately interactive, with characters that speak directly to the camera and leave a pause for viewers to respond, which drives me batty but may help children practice their words.

Even when a children’s show doesn’t attempt to build interactivity into their program, some children may learn quite a bit from them – if they identify with the characters. We are inherently social creatures, who learn best through imitation, and recent theories suggest that children are more likely to learn from television when they develop a “parasocial relationship” with the characters, the same kind that adults develop with their favorite TV characters on NCIS or Survivor. So one child might learn a great deal from Sesame Street, if they see a character they identify with – and Sesame Street does have the greatest range for identification, with muppets who are food insecure or have a parent in prison.

Any television character a child identifies with might help their vocabulary. Except, of course, for Curious George (or Wall-E). Unless we can find another mischievous, climbing character that gets to go up in space, though, my sister will probably continue to endure monkey noises. All I can offer her is the reminder that language is just one thing children learn from television. There’s empathy, and various facts about the world.

With any luck, the repetition of the episode where Curious George gets roller skates means Malcolm will never try to put his own rollers skates on their dog, since he already knows how that goes. Surely that’s worth a child who seems to want to take a few steps back down the evolutionary ladder?

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