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Is Screen Time Helpful for Bilingual Babies?

Parenting would be so much easier if babies came with manuals! Well, the good news is, there are seemingly millions of baby manuals sold in bookstores and parenting blogs. The bad news is, they all contradict each other, as Ava Neyer has brilliantly demonstrated in her hilarious blog post, “I Read All The Baby Sleep Books.” The truth is, every baby is different. What works for one child doesn’t work for another, and every parent I’ve asked for advice has told me the same exact thing: “You know your child better than anyone else in the world. So do what your experience has told you works best for your child, and don’t worry if other people tell you that you’re doing it wrong.”

Of course, that’s easier said than done, especially when it’s pediatricians who are telling me that I’m doing it wrong. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that multimedia should be avoided for children under the age of 2. “The concern,” explains Dr. Ari Brown, the lead author of the AAP’s statement on avoiding screen time for babies, “is that some kids who watch a lot of media actually have poor language skills, so there’s a deficit in their language development.” Yet, it is precisely to boost my son’s language development that I have intentionally given him tons of screen time during his infancy. I’ll admit, I feel guilty defying the doctors, but then again, our personal situation isn’t exactly typical.

Maximizing Exposure to Yiddish in a World Dominated by English

My wife and I are raising our son bilingually. I use only Yiddish with him, and my wife speaks mostly English. The trouble is, while our son is almost completely surrounded by English – around family, around friends, in daycare, in the supermarket, at the doctor’s office, in coffee shops, at community events, etc – I am the only person who regularly speaks Yiddish around him. Every day, he not only interacts actively with others in English, but he also passively hears English spoken in a variety of voices, in a variety of contexts, and it’s precisely through absorbing language in such a totally immersive environment that children are able to learn their native language(s) so well. But if the only Yiddish voice that he hears is mine – and I’m a busy, introverted PhD student who naturally doesn’t talk very much – then how can I expect him to develop any fluency in the language? How can my wife and I maximize his Yiddish language exposure, so that, despite the fact that I’m the only person regularly speaking Yiddish around him, his infancy and toddlerhood will be filled with the sounds of Yiddish?

Our personal answer has involved a combination of strategies. I’ve committed to reading him at least one Yiddish story and singing him at least one Yiddish song every single day. I’ve memorized Yiddish children’s poems, which I recite while changing his diaper and pushing him on the swing. I’ve made very strong efforts to chat my son’s head off in Yiddish while going about our daily lives, despite my highly introverted nature. I often play Yiddish CDs in the background during meals and while getting him dressed in the mornings. As my wife has absorbed bits of Yiddish herself from hearing me interact with our son, she’s also made increasing efforts to use the language with our son. (She didn’t know any Yiddish before meeting me, but her Yiddish has improved quite a lot, just from hearing me talk, read, and sing to our son!) And, not least of all, I’ve given him tons and tons of screen time – mostly YouTube videos and streaming web-TV – even from the time he was just a few months old.

How Screen Time Helps My Bilingual Baby

Showing him Yiddish cartoons and live-action children’s programming has significantly increased his exposure to the language. It’s ensured that he hear the language in a variety of voices – male and female, old and young, with a wide range of accents and dialects. It has diversified his exposure to Yiddish, both in terms of the actual vocabulary that he’s hearing as well as the quality of the language (for example, idiomatic phrases and cadences that I never learned as a non-native Yiddish speaker). It has presented the Yiddish language to him in a wide variety of contexts, from fantastical flights to the moon to bird-watching and flower-picking to hilariously-conceived bicycle races, toilet-shopping expeditions, arts and crafts projects, picnics in the park, and more. And it has done all of this in a highly attractive, fun, and memorable way: with colorful animations, busy live-action scenes, exciting plots, background music, and enthusiastic character voices. I certainly don’t want my 1-year-old to turn into a couch potato, but screen time gives him so much exposure to his minority language that he wouldn’t otherwise get, and so I consider it an essential tool for his language development.

I’ll admit that screen time has its guilty benefits, as well. Sometimes, we’re just so darn busy with cooking and cleaning for Shabbos, or dealing with frustrating house repairs, or trying to get work done from home, that plopping our son in front of a computer screen is the only way we can get stuff done. Changing our son’s diaper became an olympic sport the moment he learned how to move. Have you ever tried changing the diaper of a screaming baby who’s arching his back, twisting his legs, rolling over, and flailing his arms? Let me tell you, it’s extremely athletic and nearly impossible without getting poop all over everything – unless we show him a TV show on our iPhone, which is sometimes the only way he’ll lie still for a diaper change. When we brought him to the doctor for his regular vaccines, the pediatrician herself suggested that we show him a cartoon on our iPhone to distract him before the needle went in – brilliant! Absolutely brilliant! I don’t know how kids got shots in the days before iPhones… And as long as we’re giving him all this screen time for practical reasons, it might as well be in Yiddish and boost his minority language exposure, right?

The Challenges of Finding Yiddish Multimedia

But plopping our son in front of Yiddish TV shows isn’t always as easy or lazy as it sounds. For one thing, there isn’t a lot of Yiddish multimedia out there, so finding it can be a real challenge. The Swedish Educational Broadcasting Company has produced several live-action and semi-animated web-TV series for children in Yiddish, which can be streamed for free on their website. But their website is in Swedish, and I don’t know Swedish, so finding these videos has taken a bit of language-savvy guesswork on my part. Meanwhile, a multicultural organization in Poland, which celebrates national and cultural diversity as a path towards peace, has released two animated Yiddish YouTube videos based on Jewish folktales; if I recall correctly, I learned about these from a blog post or news article that one of my friends posted on Facebook. Another source for Yiddish cartoons is YiddishPop, a New York-based educational website designed to teach people Yiddish in a completely immersive and self-directed digital environment; I found out about it because I happen to be friends with two of its developers. And then there are some random YouTube videos here and there, which I’ve either found through personal connections with the videos’ creators or through hours of frustratingly difficult searches. It is incredibly hard to search for Yiddish-language videos on YouTube, for four reasons: (1) because YouTube (and Google more broadly) tends to think that “Yiddish” is a synonym for “Hebrew” or “Israeli”, so it tends to bring up Hebrew search results; (2) because a lot of videos labeled “Yiddish” are actually in English; (3) because a lot of videos that are in Yiddish aren’t labeled as such; and (4) because YouTube automatically translates (or “translates”) non-English search terms into English and thus brings up totally irrelevant search results when I’m trying to search in Yiddish.

Another challenge is that most of the Yiddish videos that I’ve found are not on YouTube and cannot be automatically looped; that is, as soon as one episode ends, I have to physically go over to the computer/iPhone and load the next episode. And since each episode tends to be between 5-10 minutes, that can be very frustrating when I’m trying to get other work done. In English, of course, the situation is much different: episodes of Daniel Tiger or Sesame Street are much, much longer, and with YouTube you can have them automatically switch from one episode to the next.

To make things easier, I created a YouTube playlist of animated Yiddish videos for children, which loops automatically from one clip to the next. But there are so few videos to include in my playlist, that the entire list could be watched in a matter of 15 minutes! So in addition to showing my son Yiddish videos, I have also adopted a second strategy: looking for videos with no language at all, especially clips from Fantasia, the opening credits of the video game Banjo Kazooie (an absolutely awesome video that my son adores), and classical music videos, some of which I’ve added to the above-mentioned playlist. The logic is simple: if I find that I need to give my son screen time for practical reasons (e.g. to keep him entertained while I cook and clean for Shabbos), but I don’t want him to keep watching the same few videos over and over and over, then I can at least find non-verbal videos that won’t increase his exposure to English. As I said, we’re raising our son bilingually – that means that both languages, including English, are important and valuable. But the gap between the minority language (Yiddish) and the majority language (English) is naturally so large and daunting, that if one isn’t careful, kids will just switch to using the majority language full-time. So if it isn’t possible to reduce that gap through more exposure to Yiddish, then at the very least not making that gap any bigger is just as important. And besides, as a musicologist with a passion for instrumental music, I’m always looking for ways to increase my son’s exposure to good music – so showing him non-verbal, instrumental music videos on YouTube is great for that purpose.

Needless to say, if we were raising our son monolingually in English, or if we had lots of Yiddish-speaking friends and family around to boost and diversify his language exposure, or if we lived in an area that had Yiddish-speaking schools and community events, then maybe I wouldn’t feel such a need to give him so much screen time. Maybe, in such situations, screen time wouldn’t have enough benefits to justify its risks. But in our situation – raising our son in a language that nobody else around here except for me regularly speaks with him – screen time is one of the best ways I can think of for boosting his language development. Of course, the proof is in the pudding, so we’ll see if my efforts pay off when he actually gets old enough to start talking. (He’s still just shy of one and a half.) In the meantime, all I can do is try my best.

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