This is a story about trying to accomplish two unrelated things with one solution: making your child bilingual and avoiding having to fight every day about screen time. As you might know TV is highly addictive with young children and there’s some guesses that it hinders some aspects in early development, but more importantly it disconnects you from each other at an age where you’re establishing what type of relationship you might have, or at least what the default might be. Regardless of what those long-term studies conclude, not having to fight a tablet for a bit of quality time with my daughter seemed like a desirable thing.
Bilingualism was important to me for a few reasons. That’s what I grew up with and personally feel it’s often given me a huge advantage in life, both professionally but even more so on a personal level. Being able to read and comprehend natively in more than one language opens up entire new worlds for you to absorbe, learn from and enjoy. It also gives you access to form deep relationships with millions (or billions, depending on the language mix) of other human beings which would otherwise be much more challenging with a language barrier. It’s hard to overstate just how massive of an advantage it is, from personal experience. There’s also dozens of long term studies that link being bilingual with all sorts of great things ranging from strengthening cognitive abilities, increased creativity, better at multi-tasking and reducing the risks and effects of Dementia and Alzheimer’s.
I have so many great friends spread out all over the world in a big part because I could communicate with them at a comfortable level to form a deeper relationship, it feels almost unfair
So, it felt important and it felt like something that was basically free to acquire in an early age with the right set of conditions, and increasingly hard as time went by.
However, the conditions that led me to be bilingual, which were essentially growing up in foreign countries where I did not speak the local language and attended an international schools was not available to my daughter when she was born, and we weren’t keen on moving somewhere far away to enable this specific advantage.
But how does limiting screen time without making it a daily battle and being bilingual intersect you ask, 3 paragraphs in?
Well, when I was kid growing up in communist Poland, TV was not always fun. Often there would just be some really old cartoons in Polish that I could not understand, and I remember sort of watching it but mostly trying to figure out what else to do that would be more entertaining and switching to that as soon as something came up. In contrast, I remember whenever I could watch something that I understood well, and how my brain just lit up and would fight anyone to the death (and often tried) that would pry it away from me.
So here was my thought: what if any screen time my daughter had was boring enough that it would shave off most of the addictive aspect of it, and would still give her something good in return other than entertainment?
I think you see where I’m going with this
That’s how the “mostly unlimited screen time, but only in English” rule came to be. It was a gamble. It took some scary turns for a while as I learned first hand how incredibly damaging and evil YouTube is with little kids, there was some course correction to start to slowly reduce and drop screen time as she got closer bedtime.
As the years went by, one of the two goals had been pretty clearly accomplished: there was little or no fighting about screen time with our daughter, and she would often go days without watching anything. She also seemed to like to spend a lot less time than many other kids glued to TVs and tablets. But more importantly, I was not having to fight about it all the time, which I absolutely dreaded having to do.
This, I feel and felt early on, was a huge success.
The Bilingualism took some more time, though. There were signs here and there that English was easy for her to pick up, she would sometimes surprise you by understanding something she overheard, but there were lots of doubts about whether it had any meaningful impact on her or not. We sometimes read her books in English, but bedtime stories are such an intimate moment that things sort of kept on gravitating back to Spanish on their own.
However, in what felt out of the blue, one day she could just understand everything. She could also have conversations with a lot of confidence, even if it required spanglishing in there a word or three. This is about around age 5. I don’t know if it was the right age of maturity, or whether it was the change in school where there was a stronger focus on English and she made a friend that could only really speak English, but once she surfaced it, it all unravelled pretty quickly.
Friends and family that would often switch to English to say certain things that kids weren’t supposed to understand suddenly found that my daughter would understand them perfectly. She understood the plots of the cartoons and movies she would watch. You could read her books and she’d understand and enjoy them. It felt like a pretty big change overnight.
Now, for me personally, being bilingual has one particularly interesting aspect: some thought process are in one language, some are in others. I suspect that’s one of the reasons it has some cognitive advantages. So what made it seem like the second goal had been a real and lasting success was that I noticed that most of the time when she was playing on her own, it’s all in English. Her toys talk to each other in English, they fight with each other in English and they go on adventures in English.
I feel that’s a pretty big sign there’s internal thought processes happening in a second language.
It also made me realize how much of what kids watch on a screen actually influences how they play. If she spends a few days going to someone else’s house where they watch TV in Spanish, often her toys would switch languages for a little while before going back.
So, all in all I would say this has been a huge success that I’m very proud of and felt it was worth writing about and sharing. I learned a lot about the intersection of screen time and languages which I would not have guessed, at least in my very specific anecdotal experiment.
I also have to say that my inspiration for trying out long-term things like this came from the wonderful Francis Lacoste, who taught his baby sign language without neither of them being deaf and had such an amazing story out of it that he wrote a book about it.
Now, some smart readers will be thinking: there’s a problem with where this is heading. I know, I know. As her comprehension of the second language starts to equate her first language, screen time will be as attractive as if we hadn’t done any of this. I’ve already seen hints of this. She’s more often binging on specific cartoons, and she’ll sometimes prioritize watching TV over other things which wasn’t the case before.
I don’t have a plan for this next phase yet. Maybe the fact that screen time wasn’t such a major thing in her first 6 years will make it a bit less addictive?
We’ll see where this takes us, maybe I’ll think of a new hack soon enough.