Can children learn acquire language skills just from watching television? A research team composed of members from University of Washington, Temple University, and University of Delaware would argue that they cannot. A new study has highlighted the importance of interactivity for the development of children’s language skills. The researchers found that showing children a video of language instruction was not an effective means of teaching new vocabulary.

The study was comprised of data gathered from observing 36 two-year-olds. Each child was to learn new verbs from a randomly-assigned method: live human interaction, video chat using a service like Skype, or a video of an instructor speaking to off-screen children.

The study revealed that the children learned words only when there was an interactive element, that is, when they communicated with someone who responded to them in person or through video chat. The children did not acquire the new vocabulary via the instructional video. Learning from real-time interaction resulted in the children being able to apply the words they learned to other people performing the actions.

These findings have some serious implications for language learning: primarily, interaction with adults results in greater language acquisition than passively consuming screen-based media. The results may also suggest that children struggling with language acquisition may need more time interacting with adults in order to overcome their deficiencies. It is also worth noting that the findings suggest that a screen is not a barrier to language development, but rather a lack of interaction is.

“This study highlights the importance of responsive interactions for language learning. Interactions allow adults and toddlers to respond to each other in a back-and-forth fashion—such as live instruction and the video chats. These types of interactions seem to be central for learning words,” said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at Temple University.

This research is published in the journal Child Development.

Previous news in development: