Digital Media Exposure & Multilingual Learning | Child & Family Blog
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Children’s digital media exposure as a backdrop for multilingual learning

By Lauren Cycyk and , Stephanie De Anda and , | June 2024 

Multilingual families can strategically use digital media and back-and-forth conversations to support early language development.

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Key takeaways for caregivers

  • Multilingual children use digital media regularly, in all their home languages.
  • Digital media use may affect multilingual children’s early language learning by reducing opportunities for back-and-forth conversations with adults.
  • This finding is similar to results of studies of digital media and language learning for children learning only one language.
  • When using digital media, families can try to select programs that are geared toward building children’s skills and presented in the families’ language(s).
  • Families can support language development with back-and-forth conversations (both about the digital media and unrelated), especially in the families’ language(s).

How might digital media affect multilingual children’s language learning?

Most research on digital media and child development has studied families who speak only English—but as much as 60% of the world is multilingual. We do not know much about multilingual children’s digital media use. We explored this topic in families who speak Spanish and English. Spanish is the fourth most common language spoken worldwide; it is the second most common language spoken in the United States, where we conducted our research.

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Exploring the effects of digital media on children’s Spanish and English language development

We studied 30 families from Mexican backgrounds that had a child between 15 and 27 months old. Families spoke mostly Spanish with their children, but all children also heard and spoke some English at home.

With the families’ permission, we recorded samples of the toddlers’ exposure to language at home. Children wore a small audio-recording device over two to three days for a total of about 15 hours. Our research team reviewed the recordings to study language exposure from digital media (television, radio, electronic games, and videos on cell phones and tablets) and from people talking.

What did we listen for in the recordings?

Based on the recordings, we noted the amount of time children were exposed to digital media, the language of the digital media (Spanish or English), and the type of digital media (programs for children or for adults). We also reviewed the recordings to explore talk from adults and children (the number of words spoken by adults, how much back-and-forth conversation occurred between adults and the child, and children’s amount of words and babbles).

If you use digital media with your young children, you are not alone! Parents use digital media to keep children busy, to help them relax, and to assist with learning.

What did we learn? Why does it matter?

All families exposed their children to some digital media during the recordings. If you use digital media with your young children, you are not alone! Parents use digital media to keep children busy, to help them relax, and to assist with learning. Next, we share three main findings and briefly explain their implications for how you can use digital media most effectively with your child.

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1. Children with more digital media exposure participated in fewer conversations with adults.

Back-and-forth conversations are essential for learning how to communicate. Children learn about communication even when they are not yet talking much. Children learn new sounds, words, and phrases from conversations. Too much digital media can limit such conversational opportunities for learning. 

Consider reducing your child’s use of digital media to under an hour per day. Or talk more with your child while they watch media.  Ask them who, what, where, and why questions about the program. Connect the events in the program to their life. Expand on what your child says with new information. These strategies can support language development

2. Children heard more media in Spanish than in English.

This matches our finding that families used more Spanish than English when talking to their children. We strongly recommend high-quality and regular conversations in the family’s language(s)—any languages the family uses—to provide the strongest support to the child. Often, this is parents’ native language(s). Learning the family language (English or another language) can help support children’s identities, connections to family and culture, and future outcomes. Digital media in the family language may play a supportive role.

We also found that programs for adults, like news or telenovelas, tended to be in Spanish. Programs for children, like cartoons, were often in English. Parents may have selected programs in English to help their children learn English before starting school. We do not know how digital media supports children to learn two languages. In general, children are more successful learning words from human conversations than from digital media. Most children who attend U.S. schools learn English over time, with English supported in their schools. Schools may not help children learn the family language. It may be important for caregivers to use the family language at home so children can become multilingual.

Learning the family language (English or another language) can help support children’s identities, connections to family and culture, and future outcomes.

3. Children heard more media intended for adults than for children, but watching children’s programs appeared to increase children’s use of words and babbles.

Child-focused programs may support children in practicing new words. Programs that teach a school skill, like numbers or letters, or a social skill, like how to make friends, may be most helpful. Still, back-and-forth conversations with a live person are best for children’s language development.

Photo by Marta Wave on Pexels

How can you support your child’s communication?

Based on our findings and those of other studies, we recommend that parents and caregivers:

  • Limit exposure to digital media when possible. Instead, include children in social activities, like helping with chores or playing.
  • Select digital media in the family language(s) that have educational goals. Avoid programs that do not teach your child new skills. 
  • When possible, talk with your child while you listen to or watch digital media. Ask what, why, who, and where questions about the content. When they respond, keep the conversation going by adding to what they say. 
  • Continue to use your family language(s) often with your child, even if they do not respond in the same language(s). Look for opportunities for your child to have more meaningful interactions in your family language(s), like telling stories or reading books. 
  • Remember that there is no evidence that multilingualism or support for the family language(s) causes or worsens existing speech or language delays.

Click here for the Spanish version!

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