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Q: In your NPR Parents’ Journal interview, you stated that children under the age of 30 months do not learn anything about language from TV programs, but I disagree.  My 17-month-old daughter is not allowed to watch entertainment TV, but since she was 9 months old, she has watched a baby signing language DVD series about 3 times a week.  Now she knows about 80 signs (and about 60 spoken words), and learning sign language as a family has greatly enhanced our relationships because she can tell us what she needs without crying and throwing a tantrum. I feel strongly that the 1-2 hours of media exposure a week are making her toddlerhood much less frustrating and are worth whatever negative effects are possible. I would love to hear your thoughts on this matter.
Serious about Signing, Baltimore, MD

A: Dear Serious about Signing,

Thank you for raising this important issue. My own young children signed when they were your daughter's age and I absolutely agree that baby sign language can be a wonderful tool for allowing pre-verbal children to communicate more specifically than they can with cries of distress. It sounds like the simple signs that you and your child are learning are making a world of difference, and the DVDs seem to be giving you a good deal of useful guidance.

In terms of what children under 30 months can learn from screens, research on brain development suggests that they can learn to imitate. Imitation is certainly useful—as you’ve experienced, imitation can provide a tool for asking for something specific, like milk. But their brains are not really ready to develop verbal language.

So what is going on here? Most likely, your daughter is learning to imitate motions from the DVDs and, most importantly, from you. You respond to the motions by giving her what she’s asking for, so the behavior is positively reinforced—and she’ll imitate signs on the screen even if you don’t see them because she knows that you will respond. If you responded inconsistently or not at all to her signs, however, she would probably stop using them.

What that means is that what she sees on screen is only important because you support it. And since you do, her signing is helping her create a practice of communication, which will probably serve her well when she moves on to words. Just know that what’s best for brain development at this age is manipulating her physical environment, creative problem-solving play, and time spent interacting with you—and since signing is something you do together, that works. Screens on their own won’t provide her with any of those three things.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician

2 Responses to “Can toddlers learn sign language by watching DVDs?”

  1. Jeroen Arendsen

    You say: “In terms of what children under 30 months can learn from screens, research on brain development suggests that they can learn to imitate. Imitation is certainly useful—as you’ve experienced, imitation can provide a tool for asking for something specific, like milk. But their brains are not really ready to develop verbal language.”
    Are you seriously proposing that children are not ready for (verbal) language until 30 months?
    Please elaborate?

    Reply
  2. The Mediatrician

    Dear Dr. Arendsen,
    Thank you for your question. To clarify: Babies are developing the fundamentals of verbal language from the moment they are born, particularly as their parents speak and read to them. Toward the end of their first year of life, they start to verbalize, and during their second year, both their abilities and their vocabularies increase rapidly.
    According to the research, however, babies’ ability to learn language *from a screen* is not in place consistently or significantly until about 30 months (although some research has shown it to start occurring in some children at 20-24 months). There are ideas about why this might be the case. One is a hypothesis which suggests that babies perceive video to be socially meaningless, whereas people who are actually standing in front of them are responsive.
    For that reason, screens that show a stranger demonstrating words or actions do not carry the same importance as does a real-life person, particularly a real-life person who has some meaning to the child. That is why, even with imitation of simple actions, we see a “video deficit” in very young children: They can learn to imitate an action demonstrated on screen, but it takes 6 screen demonstrations to equal the learning they would get from 1 direct demonstration by a parent. (see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16686801)
    Babies are learning all the time. Research suggests that they learn far more effectively from live people than they do from screens. So although their brains are sponges for all kinds of things, they are not ready to verbalize for many months, and they are not ready to really learn from screens for several years.

    Reply

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