Experts in bilingualism make different recommendations for how much input children need in each of their languages in order to develop into proficient speakers, but most recommendations fall in the range of 20 hours per week or 20%-30% of the total language input. 20 hours per week can be a heavy lift for parents raising bilingual children in a predominantly monolingual setting. Children enrolled in a bilingual school program might receive approximately 15 hours of minority language input per week. So, if school is the only place where children use their minority language, many parents will want to supplement minority language input in some way.
Input: natural language use that a learner is exposed to through interaction or observation, e.g. if a caregiver is speaking to a child they are providing language input.
The situation is arguably more challenging for caregivers who are the sole source of minority language input, especially if only one parent uses a given language with their children, as is the case for families who follow the One Parent One Language model. The more children in the family, the less minority language input for each child (especially because siblings tend to communicate with each other in the socially-dominant language), and depending on work schedules and extracurricular activities, it may be nearly impossible for an adult to provide children with 20 hours of language input.
One Parent One Language: a popular approach to raising bi- or trilingual children in which each parent speaks a different language to the child.
In situations like the ones outlined above, many parents turn to media in the form of movies and television to supplement their child’s language learning. While most parents know that native-speaker nannies, international travel, and private tutoring are more effective ways to supplement language input, these strategies obviously represent a much larger financial commitment than a monthly subscription to a streaming service and are simply out-of-reach for most families. So, this brings us to the main point of this post, which is, can ‘screen time’ help a child learn a language? The answer to this question, like many questions, is ‘yes and no’.
The way that screen time can be used to support language learning depends on the age of the child and their language proficiency. First, infants learn the vocabulary they need to begin decoding phrases and ultimately acquire their first language(s) through joint attention and child-directed speech, both of which require human interaction. Infants might find the flashing lights and moving pictures of television engaging, but they are unable to glean enough from the prerecorded speech stream to make it worth introducing screen time to children before they are developmentally ready. If you want to expose your infant to language input that does not come directly from a caregiver, stick to ambient radio, podcasts, and music, which probably won't do them much good in terms of language-learning, but also won’t do them any harm.
Joint attention: when a caregiver and child focus on an object together, i.e. they look at the same thing at the same time.
For children between the ages of 2 and 5 there are safe and effective ways to use screen time to support language learning. The characters and events of any story, including those told in movies and television series, can supplement language input from a caregiver nicely, because they are often more varied and imaginative than the repetitive themes of parenting (personal hygiene, prosocial play, traffic safety, etc.) If a parent speaks the minority language at any level (seriously, any level) the best way to turn movies and television into language-learning opportunities is to use the story as a jumping off point for conversation. Hit pause and ask your child to ‘point to three green objects’, or ‘find the bear’, or ‘explain what just happened’ depending on their age and ability. If they can’t or won’t actively participate in that kind of exchange, talk through the show anyway, making comments about what you're watching while repeating words and rephrasing dialogue. In other words, the way to make the most of screen time is to transform it from a relaxing experience of passive consumption into something rather labor intensive. I don’t know about you, but there are few things I like less than children's television, and if my kids are using screens, I want nothing to do with it.
So, this brings me to the second best option, which is appropriate for some kids in the 2-5 age range, but for others it won’t make sense until they are a little older and their language skills are a little stronger. If you aren’t willing to ‘actively’ watch tv with your kids (I'm not!), and your child already has a solid base in the language, look for media that contains comprehensible input. The ideal situation would be that the language they are observing through the screen is just a bit more advanced than their actual level. They do not need to know every word being used, but if they can understand most of it, they have the potential to learn new vocabulary (or possibly how to use existing vocabulary in grammatical phrases) by using what they already know. This is similar to how children build their vocabularies in their dominant language as well, and because 'not understanding everything' is a familiar experience for children, they should be willing to watch shows in their non-dominant language, especially if it's that or nothing! If your child has language skills in the minority language that match their chronological age then finding media with comprehensible input won't be an issue for you.
Comprehensible input: language input that the learner can mostly understand.
Families have different rules around screen time, but in our household the rule is something like this. Our kids can watch television in English on Saturday and Sunday mornings, if they don’t have to wake us up to do so. All other television has to be in Spanish and something that they are likely to understand. (If you aren't sure whether your child would watch content they don't understand just to be watching television-we have one of those!-put on something in a language that they don't know and see how long they stick around.) What this typically means in our household is that our older child choses not to watch any additional television during the week, and our younger child watches shows that are probably a bit ‘young’ for him in that he isn’t the intended audience (he’s watching things like Pocoyó and Plaza Sésamo, but he's already five AND A HALF). A game changer for our older child was figuring out that watching a movie in Spanish after reading the book (in either English or Spanish) makes the content more accessible. For example, we own the book series How to Train Your Dragon in English, which is a serendipitous, because the movie series Cómo entrenar a tu dragón is regularly playing on Mexican network television right now.
Our rationale for making the choices that we do is that if our kids are watching television anyway, it might as well be in their non-dominant language, but my expectations for what they are learning are quite minimal. Neither my children nor your children will binge watch their way to fluency in their minority language. I would also not let them watch more television than I am otherwise comfortable with just because it is television in the language that need more input in. Again, the potential language-learning gains are fairly minimal. (And I'm not even talking about Dora the Explorer, because I think that TV shows explicitly meant to 'teach' a language are fairly useless in that regard).
But ending on a positive note, here's what I believe my kids are getting out of watching Spanish language movies and television, assuming that whatever they are watching meets the threshold of comprehensible input. They are hearing words and structures that they already know used in new contexts. They are gaining new passive vocabulary that they may later transition to active vocabulary when they encounter the relevant words in a real-world setting. They are gaining experience processing language at a rate that is meant for native speakers. They are exposed to accents in their non-dominant language that they do not encounter day-to-day. Especially when they are watching shows created by native speakers (as opposed to shows that have been dubbed) they gain exposure to cultures in which their non-dominant language is culturally dominant, and see that language as 'relevant' to high-value media like movies and television. Finally, they are having fun in their non-dominant language, which supports positive attitudes about language learning.
Passive vocabulary: words that learners understand but don't use.
Bonus: Original Spanish programs my kids enjoy and where to watch them from the US