Why Learning Language in Real Life Trumps Learning it from Screens

by | Sep 2, 2021

Being able to communicate through language is a unique human skill that unlocks amazing possibilities for children. Robust language skills are the key to connecting socially and engaging with the world intelligently. As a result, discerning parents put careful thought into creating the ideal environment to help expand their pre-schoolers’ language skills.

Does television viewing build or hinder language development?
Researchers from the University of California studied 275 families of young children who were between zero and 4 years old. The children were fitted with recording devices to monitor how much television each child experienced as well as how much “social talk” was going on in their household. They found the following:

  • There is a strong link between the frequency with, which children have two-way conversations with their parents and the rate of their language development.
  • However, when parents do all the talking, there is a much smaller correlation. In fact, children benefit 6 times less in these situations, even when they are being read to or told stories.

Studies have shown that screen time can have a very negative effect on language development. This is because screens keep children from conversing with their parents as much as they otherwise would have done if the television was turned off.

Why does learning language via two-way conversations trump learning it from screens?
Donald Hebb famously said: “Brain cells that fire together, wire together” and this is very relevant when it comes to language development. Nature has wired the language regions in the brains of young children to be activated during serve-and-return interactions with human beings that are very familiar to them. Historically, this may have protected them from learning things from other species or cultural groups that may be dangerous.
What’s more, children learn best when they are interacting with familiar people who respond to them in an immediate, personal, goal-directed and multi-sensory way.

The problem with television is that the characters don’t actively engage with viewers. In developing brains, many of the brain regions that play a role in learning language don’t switch on when a speaker is unable to have a personal, two-way conversation. When children’s brains are not fully activated, they learn far less.

Here are a few pointers to keep in mind when you have two-way conversations with your child:

  1. Pause often to encourage your child to spontaneously take conversational turns. The first prize is to get them talking, but they can also use non-verbal communication –such as laughing or facial expressions – to respond and keep the conversation going.
  2. Don’t bombard your child with questions. Instead, focus mainly on making comments. Also, slow down and wait silently when you see your child needs time to think of something to say.
  3. Repeat new words and phrases to emphasise their meanings.
  4. Provide as many visual cues as possible. Pointing to a picture helps, but it’s even better if the clue that you’re giving is tangible and multi-sensory. For example, when you ask: “Do you want a strawberry?” you can hold up a strawberry and, if doing so is practical, let your child smell, taste and touch it.
  5. Use facial expressions and gestures to help explain the meaning of words. You can, for example, create your own unique way of using your hands to demonstrate what you mean when you say something is sticky, smelly, big or slippery.
  6. Use correct grammar and interesting words. Don’t only use words that your child already knows or oversimplify your sentences to try to help your child understand you. For example, instead of saying: “John sit chair”, rather say: “John, please sit on this chair.”

It’s also important to provide your child’s developing brain with the necessary nutrients. The development of language skills requires new pathways to form in the brain. Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are needed to provide the necessary building blocks for this development. Since they cannot be produced by our bodies, they must be obtained from our diet.

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