Impact of Television Programming in Early Language Development
Language is made up of spoken, written or gestured words and the ways in which they are combined to communicate meaning.1 A newborn baby does not show any linguistic capabilities but by four months of age, most babies can read lips and discriminate speech sounds. This is followed by the babbling stage during which a four month old infant spontaneously utters various sounds unrelated to the household language. By 10 months, the babbling changes into household language that can be recognized by trained ears. A one year old child realizes that sounds carry meanings and is able to use single words to communicate. At 18 months, the learning increases from one word per week to one word per day. A two year old child uses two to three word sentences and as the child grows older he picks up as many as 5000 words per year. A high school graduate has a vocabulary of about 80,000 words.
Most researchers, today, believe that both nature and nurture play important roles in language acquisition and although children have an innate ability to learn language, it is their interactions with their environment including parents, caregivers, siblings as well as inanimate objects like toys and television that ultimately help them to develop this skill. In fact, more children are watching television today than in the past. A recent study by Zimmerman and Christakis has shown that an average child under the age of three watches television for 2.2 hours in a day and those between the ages of 3 to 5 watch for 3.3 hours.2
The two episodes of Arthur – D.W. Dancing Queen and Fernkenstein’s Monster – that were a part of this assignment are good examples of informative television programming for children. Apart from introducing new words to its young viewers, the programs also teach important aspects of communication like listening to peers and expressing one’s own likes and dislikes using language and gestures. The second story “Fernkenstein’s Monster” helps children to understand that they can create a good story by framing their words correctly and that different thoughts can be communicated by using different words.
Several studies have been conducted over the past few decades to examine the effect of television programs like Arthur on early language acquisition. In one study conducted by John C. Wright et al, the effect of early television viewing on school readiness and vocabulary of children from low and moderate income families was investigated.3 Parents of 236 children from ages 2-5 and 4-7 years were interviewed to record the number of hours a child spent watching television and the quality of programs seen. The study concluded that viewing informative programming designed specifically for children does help to improve ‘letter-word skills and receptive vocabulary.’ However, the effect of watching general entertainment programs may lead to lower cognitive and language development. Another study that focused on children under 2 years of age conducted by Zimmerman et al concluded that even one hour of watching visual media by 8 to 16 month olds had negative impact on their vocabulary acquisition .4
Most studies, that have been conducted to analyze the influence of visual media prescribe
moderation. The effect of television programming depends on the age of the child, the time
spent watching the programs and the quality of the program. Although viewing of even little
amount of television has negative effect on children under the age of two, quality educational
programs that are comprehensible and attractive have definitely helped children between the
ages of 2 and 5 years to develop language by introducing new words and role models like
Elmo and Barney to demonstrate appropriate communication. Viewing general programming, on
the other hand, leads to poor language acquisition at any age. Thus, it is important to develop
children’s programs that are age-appropriate, engaging, clear, direct and explicit. It is also
important to create awareness amongst parents about the right program choices for their kids.
1. Myers, D.G. (2005). Exploring Psychology. Holland, MI:Worth.
2. Zimmerman, F.J., & Christakis, D.A. (2005). Children’s Television Viewing and Cognitive Outcomes. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med, 159, 619-625.
3. Wright, J.C., Huston, A.C., Murphy, K.C., Peters, M., Pinon, M., Scantlin, R., et al. (2001). The Relation of Early Television Viewing to School Readiness and Vocabulary of Children from Low-Income Families: The Early Window Project. Child Development, 72, 1347-1366.
4. Zimmerman, F.J., Christakis, D.A., Meltzoff, A.N.(2007). Associations between Media Viewing and Language Development in Children Under Age 2 Years. J of Pediatrics, 151, 364-368.