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I have a nephew who is taught both English and Kartuli in school, and speaks both well. He also speaks pretty good Russian, but has no formal education and does not speak much to his family in the language. This doesn't mean that he doesn't speak it at all at home, or that it goes unheard...but it is not a primary language spoken in the house or between friends.

He learns the language because the cartoon programming on TV in his country is not translated to his native language, and instead is broadcast in Russian. From my understanding, this is his only source of the language besides a few interactions with strangers who might speak Russian.

I have heard many times on here and elsewhere that children wont learn a new language based on audio and video alone, that they need physical interaction from other speakers of the language to really learn it. This is where I am somewhat confused.

While we will be teaching my son English and Kartuli, I would love to have him speak Spanish as well. I know there is plenty of Spanish programming available in the US, just as Russian is in Eastern Europe. Also, I assume that he will encounter quite a bit of residual Spanish outside of the household due to a large Spanish speaking population in the US -- Similar to how his cousin's household doesn't speak Russian, but there are many Russian speaking people in his country.

So, I am wondering if there would be any actual benefit of allowing my son to watch Spanish language programming once he reaches an appropriate age. Would there be any consequences of mandating that the programming be Spanish only?

I would try to speak the language with him, and better my vocabulary. As it stands, both my wife and I do speak basic conversational Spanish, but I do not see it being spoken at home due to us focusing on the other languages.

I have found some very interesting answers on this site, and links to great references. I am hoping someone can shed some light on this theory for me, so I can reconsider before I do any damage ;)

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2 Answers

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I have met Icelander who said they learned a lot of their English from TV & sometimes you can tell which shows they watch (American vs British) by their accent. But they are in a country with widespread bilingualism, English has prestige (and more importantly isn't Danish) & is cool among young people, etc.

My reading "Screen Time" was very informative to me about this question for both 1st language and 2nd language interactions for young TV viewers. Ref http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/B001KOTUE2

The book says from the youngest to oldest kids, the material they watch has to be dead on at the appropriate age level--not a sex and violence issue, but a level of language complexity issue. Many US cartoons that we might think are just for kids are written by adults and are linguistically complex enough that only adults are going to understand it (Veggie Tales fell in this category). Only two shows happen to have research backing up the idea that kids actually understand the material-- Sesame Street & Dora the Explorer. I watch Dora the Explorer (Russian) with my son from time to time & am working on getting my mother in Law to track down Dora in Tagalog.

What the research says about harm is that if the kid doesn't understand the material (it is age inappropriate, or for 2nd language learning, it is skill level inappropriate) then the TV watching steals from other more important activities, like playing. But if the TV is age & skill level appropriate, then it probably helps or doesn't hurt.

On the other hand, I believe that without a connection to the pop culture of a given language, it is much harder for someone to develop the emotional link to a language to encourage them to use it and invest the time to find opportunities to use it, especially outside of where that language is normally spoken.

Finally, you are outlining a complicated language environment, so I might be misunderstanding parts of it, but learning a language solely from TV turns out to be really hard-- there is a case of deaf parents have tried to teach their child English just by letting him watch TV-- it didn't work. He didn't progress until he had a chance to interact with people, instead of just watching them. So I would say that TV watching is a supplemental activity and not a sufficient one.

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As far as toddler language acquisition is concerned, the more exposure a toddler gets to a language, the better he/she learns it. The correlation is direct and very obvious in young kids (say 1-5 years old). Exposure takes many forms: videos, songs, books, conversations with real people. So if you could read Spanish bedtime books along with showing the videos, that would be very beneficial. I have found songs to be incredibly powerful, as the child can learn the song, and "accidentally" learning the language in the process.

There's lots of resources (search multilingual children, for example) saying that far from confusing children, exposing children to many languages gives them stronger verbal abilities.

I would be careful about "forcing" the use of a particular language. The child may resist it. Rather, an "enticing" approach is much more effective. Make it fun! Kids love cartoons, and they will be drawn to watching it, without even knowing it's in an unfamiliar language.

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Thanks for the response! –  David Houde Jul 13 '13 at 11:39
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