Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Can TV teach your child a second language?

I met 8-year old Dalia at a birthday party that my daughter was attending. Dalia was doing handsprings on the front lawn and when I caught a glimpse of her tumbling, I said my 4-year old daughter “Look at what that girl is doing! Would you like to try gymnastics one day? Doesn’t it look like fun?” (The alpha mom in me never takes a break…).

“I can do other stuff, too!” Dalia said, when she overheard me.

Now, this party was in an Italian home for a girl in my daughter’s French kindergarten, so I was a little surprised to hear Dalia speak to me in English. I knew that her family had just moved here from Egypt but I also knew that in Egypt, she had attended the French school, so how was it that she spoke almost fluent English?

After talking to Dalia about gymnastics, I asked, “And tell me, where did you learn English, Dalia? You speak it so well, just like an American.”

“In Egypt!”, she replied, as if this was obvious. I looked at her quizzically.

“But in Egypt, people speak Arabic,” I replied, scratching my head.

“Yeah, but whenever we watched TV or DVDs, it was in English.”

That would explain why Dalia not only spoke with an almost perfect American accent, but seemed to have all the current expressions down pat. But I was still incredulous.

“You’re telling me that you learned English just from watching TV and that’s it??”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much it,” she replied, with a shrug.

Now, Dalia’s parents are diplomats, so that probably is not “pretty much it”. She has likely been in many social gatherings where she has heard English being spoken (this birthday party being just one example). And although her mom speaks to her exclusively in Arabic, Dalia has probably heard her mother speaking English (albeit with a slight Arabic accent) to other diplomats and expats, in Egypt and here in Rome.

Nevertheless, it sounds like television has played a big role in transmitting language comprehension and (surprise!) even speaking ability to Dalia.

I still don’t advocate letting children watch unlimited television, but Dalia’s case just goes to show, if they’re going to watch it, why not get them to watch in another language?