Digital devices and electronic toys can certainly play a helpful role in supporting a parent’s efforts to nurture language development. At the same time, it’s also true that using them effectively, and controlling them wisely, can be a challenge. Naturally, your situation differs from mine, and you’ll want to come to the conclusions that best serve your family, but perhaps sharing my experiences and thoughts on this subject—which now looms very large in all our lives—will offer some useful food for thought for consciously making productive choices.
An old-fashioned start
Although my work as a writer and blogger has me wired to a digital world for much of each day, the truth is, my wife and I have been rather old-fashioned about the use of electronic gadgets with our kids: They had limited contact with this world until last year, at the ages of 11 and 8, when we brought home an iPad.
It wasn’t easy to hold off for so long—particularly when they were regularly pleading for one device or another—but we stood firm. The only real concession I made was a (now ancient) Leapster, a learning gadget with various game-like cartridges. But even then, I was responding with a device in the minority language (English) to their demand for a different gadget in the majority language (Japanese). Because I knew that getting them that gadget in Japanese would undercut my efforts to nurture their English ability, I sought out an appealing alternative which could support my aim while still addressing their desire.
Meanwhile (as I discuss more fully in How Many Books Do You Have In Your Home?), I made a conscious decision to build up our home library with “real books” on bookshelves, as opposed to e-books in a digital reader, because I felt that actual books, continuously available to the eye, would create a richer environment for literacy development. (Let me stress, though, that when books in a certain language are hard to come by—see What to Do When It’s Hard to Find Children’s Books in Your Minority Language—books in any form should be eagerly added to your ever-growing collection.)
My first caution
As it turns out, my “bad Daddy” stance on delaying digital devices until a later age is backed up by recent research. (Note: It’s sometimes better to be “bad” for the greater good of our children’s growth.) A study led by Anna Sosa in 2015, which produced the paper Association of the Type of Toy Used During Play With the Quantity and Quality of Parent-Infant Communication, found that parents tend to interact with their children less—even substantially less—when electronic toys and gadgets are used. As Dr. Sosa explained, such toys—compared to more traditional toys and books—often put parents “on the sidelines” where they talk less to their children amid the digital sights and sounds.
The importance of this finding, for a young child’s minority language development, should not be underestimated because it means that parents are likely to provide a lesser amount of language exposure to their children when their use of electronic toys and gadgets takes time away from actual books and non-digital toys. This may not matter much in a single session, but when such experiences are multiplied many times over, it becomes clear that this tendency can have a large and adverse impact on the more important input needed from the parent. Remember: The more you talk to your child in the minority language, the more likely he will use that language to talk to you…and digital devices, when introduced from a young age, can interfere with that equation if they’re not used mindfully.
My second caution
As I mentioned in the story about my own children’s demands for a gadget in Japanese, consenting to a teary little one’s desire for a device in the majority language could well be counterproductive to your bilingual journey, undermining your daily efforts and your larger aim. In fact, I believe the far more productive approach, particularly when your children are small, would be to consciously limit the prevailing influence of the majority language in their lives and proactively seek out alternatives in the minority language. I know this may be easier said than done, when the target language is a less common tongue, but it remains a key principle for healthy progress, especially early on: Make productive choices that will fuel, not foil, your child’s development in the minority language.
Examples of effective use
Last year we finally dove into the digital world by getting an iPad. Apart from the fact that this device would be useful to my own work as a writer (I could at last replace my heavy laptop with a much lighter, better tool), I also felt it could be helpful in providing my kids with supplemental language exposure and practice, particularly through the use of suitable language-rich apps.
So I’ve been pretty conservative about the apps I put in it: Essentially, I limit my choices to those apps that I think they’ll enjoy but can benefit their language development at the same time. And while most of these apps are in English, I’ve also downloaded a few for learning Spanish, their second minority language. In other words, I’m cautious about introducing apps that don’t in some way engage their growing language abilities when they’re playing alone. In fact, when I’ve made a poor choice in the past—and regretfully saw that they could become “hooked” to an app that may be entertaining but offer little language input—I replaced it with another.
Meanwhile, in my work with younger bilingual kids, I’ve also found that language-less apps can be an effective source of input, in moderation, and as long as the adult is by the child’s side and remains an active and talkative participant. And because such apps—like the lovely apps from maker Toca Boca—can promote exposure in any language, as with wordless picture books, they could potentially be a useful resource for any family with a small child. (The same principle would apply to older kids, too, with a suitable language-less app and the active presence of the parent.)
On the subject of language-less apps, I should add that Minecraft is currently a large exception to my general rule about emphasizing language-rich apps for my kids to use by themselves. My 8-year-old son has become obsessed with Minecraft, a marvelous world-building game that promotes creativity and problem-solving—yet doesn’t involve much language use during game play. But here’s how it’s a fruitful exception: I’ve been feeding his interest in Minecraft with books—in the minority language, of course—and he reads them voraciously in order to learn more about the game.
So, in this case, I’ve found that my long-running quest to continually connect my kids with books on subjects of interest has paid off generously: He actually spends more time—far more time—reading these books about Minecraft than playing the game!
Idea for controlling access
It’s true, though, that he would be playing the game more—a lot more, I’m sure—if I didn’t somehow control their use of the iPad. I confess, this was another reason that I had been reluctant to get one at all: I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to control its access well and that it would become more of a problem than an asset. (Especially since they both have rather addictive personalities, courtesy of their father. )
Happily, though, I’ve managed to devise a little system that has helped me to avoid the outcome I feared. In fact, this idea has worked so well that I don’t even have to deal directly with giving them permission at all: Their use of the iPad (after completing daily homework and other chores) can be left up to them.
Here’s how it works. Let’s call this (with an exciting exclamation mark)…
1. I put some play money—$120 US—into an envelope for each child. One dollar equals one minute, so, for example, $30 equals 30 minutes.
2. Each child gets $120 for the week. If they don’t use it all, the remaining amount isn’t added to the following week. Every week (we start on Saturday) they begin with the same amount: $120 (120 minutes, or a total of 2 hours of iPad use).
3. When they have some free time (in the evenings or on weekends), and they want to use the iPad, they simply have to “pay me” for the amount of time desired. Last night my son chose to use the iPad (yes, Minecraft!) for 30 minutes so he paid me $30.
4. To monitor the time, I set a cheap timer that makes a loud, insistent beep when it goes off.
5. Although they’re pretty good about stopping when their time is up, this can be hard for them when they’re in the middle of something. If that’s the case, I give them another couple of minutes to come to an end. But if they take advantage of this—and won’t stop—I tell them that they have to pay me for additional minutes.
6. I’ll sometimes offer to reward them with extra iPad money—like $20—if they do a special chore or take some other action…but I have to be sparing about this, otherwise they’ll come to demand extra iPad money for everything!
Of course, the effectiveness of this system will depend on the particular family: It’s obviously most suitable for kids of elementary school age, though I suspect some variation of this idea would be effective for older children, too.
For us, it works beautifully because the structure relieves me of having to handle continual requests to use the iPad and the burden of being forced to say “yes” or “no”—and then dealing with sour feelings when the answer is “no.” My kids are empowered to use the iPad when they please (the available apps I’ve installed), but within this framework of 120 minutes a week. They also have to be mindful to “budget” this time or they won’t have any time left toward the end of the week—but then they’re to blame for this, not me!
Make productive choices
My experience with kids and technology is still limited, but I’m learning that it’s important to think carefully about how digital devices are introduced, and used, at home to promote the minority language most effectively. Every family will naturally handle this issue a little differently, depending on its circumstances and beliefs, but it behooves us all to mindfully make the most productive choices we can. And, remember, although technology can be a valuable aid for nurturing language development, it should not detract from our own necessary efforts to promote the minority language—and our parent-child bond—through simple, “old-fashioned” means like talking to our kids, reading aloud to them, and playing together with traditional toys and games.