Thursday, June 03, 2010

brainy baby, but bored maman

How we learn languages most naturally: We are immersed in the language throughout our waking hours, encountering words and phrases in context, hearing multiple repetitions of many words from many different speakers.

How "Brainy Baby" wants our toddlers to learn French: by watching a short video whose unseen narrator tells us what we're looking at in one- and two-word phrases, repeating the words five times or so. We see clips of noses, for example, while the narrator enunciates, "Le nez. Le nez. Le nez. Le nez. Le nez." Then it's off to ears, colors, simple greetings, numbers, and so forth.

To my surprise, Griffin will actually sit and watch this, even though he already knows all the words. (In fact, he even corrected the narrator when she called the parrot a "oiseau"--bird--by saying, "Non, un perroquet"!) This could just be because of the novelty of it; he has not watched many DVDs in his short life. Do you know a three, four, five-year-old who would sit through this more than a couple of times? (The DVD claims to be appropriate for ages 1-5, which is quite a range.)And even if your one-year-old could, would you want to plop him in front of the television for an hour or two? (Well, okay, if you're like me, there are plenty of times where you've been tempted just so you can take your first shower this week and then fix dinner.)

The teacher in me, though, wished that the Brainy Baby folks would move beyond naming objects and actually do something with the language! Eventually, they did present numbers paired with objects, colors with objects, and greetings and leave-takings via children at a door, but that was it as far as real-life contextualized usefulness. And who can learn a word with only five repetitions? Not me, even in my native language, and I'm a grown-up with lots of metalinguistic knowledge (and a year of high school Latin) to draw upon.

When the video started introducing verbs, it got my hopes up--we see a baby drinking from a bottle, or a child eating, and the narrator tells us the infinitives, boire, to drink, manger, to eat. Why not take it a step further and make sentences? We have already seen the words for baby, boy, girl. Why not tell us that the baby is drinking milk or that the girl is eating a pizza? Then give the girl milk, and bring in a boy to eat pizza and drink milk, and point out that the milk is cold and white and the pizza is hot and red, and then bring a stuffed animal or two to pretend to eat pizza and a baby who smears the pizza over her face and arms but doesn't actually eat it....and then our would-be bilingual babies might eventually conjugate the verb and make their own sentences without even thinking about it! We'd get lots of repetition in context of more than one or two words at a time, at the very least.

"Boire. Boire. Boire. Boire. Boire." Really?

Oh, and while it's great that a native speaker of French was pronouncing all the words, why not have several speakers--a male and a female, someone with a mainland French accent along with someone from Quebec and someone from West Africa? And why not get kids to do the talking--surely children watching the video will respond better to hearing another child's voice tell them what color something is?!

It also seems like a video purporting to teach kids French could also touch on some elements of culture, even simple things like pointing out colors using the French flag, or introducing the word "oeuf" with a child using a spoon to eat a soft-boiled egg in a little egg cup, or presenting the word "boire" as a child drinks hot chocolate out of a bowl. It wouldn't have to be filmed in France or Martinique or Madagascar to be able to show francophone culture! (Although it would be fun to see, say, a Mardi Gras or Carnaval parade to teach colors or monuments like the Eiffel Tower or cathedrals to introduce other adjectives. If this video even attempted to introduce any adjectives other than colors, that is.)

The too-few sections that encouraged the viewer to respond were welcome, though. Griffin would wave hello and good-bye to the kids, and when the narrator asked, "De quelle couleur est....", Griffin would call out the name of the color. More of these types of questions would be helpful, just easy ones like "Do you have a teddy bear too?" or "Can you hold up five fingers?" or "How many Eiffel Towers do you see?" or "Where is your nose?"

Oh! I almost forgot to tell you about he most heinous part: the "music video" section of children frolicking on a playground while a French translation of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" played over the soundtrack. This just seemed ridiculous to me: one, use a real, traditional children's song in French, for pete's sake, and two, have the video footage at least attempt to mirror what is happening in the song! Could it have been that hard to take a kid to a farm and film him playing with a lamb? Better yet, even easier, show kids playing in a garden for "J'ai descendu dans mon jardin" or kids with musical instruments for "Bonhomme, bonhomme, sais-tu jouer"!

So, overall, I'd say this is worth checking out from the library if you want your kids to see video clips of other kids while a French lady says some words. And if you speak French and can supplement the meager soundtrack with a running commentary and help your children interact more with the video, then go for it. But spending $20 in hopes of getting a brainier baby out of this? I wouldn't recommend it. Sorry.


  1. I know this company also makes videos for other languages--are they any different?

  2. These types of videos are the same for each language (just like Rosetta Stone BTW) and that is why there is no culture. It would be more expensive to produce different videos for each language than to just make one generic one and then hire a native speaker to say the words. We have Bilingual Baby in German and Swedish and they do one of the things you are talking about. For example, it shows a dog and says "der Hund." Then it shows the dog playing with a ball and says, "spielen." Then finally, "Der Hund spielt mit dem Ball."

    I assume you're aware of the research that shows that children don't learn any speech from a DVD?

  3. When I first began speaking to Diego in Spanish, I began to doubt my Spanish-speaking abilities, panicked, and went out and bought a bunch of videos. One of them was Brainy Baby. The vocabulary was obviously way to easy for Diego and I and I ended up giving it away. I rented the French version from the library and my experience was a little different. Since we are complete novices at French, we did pick up quite a bit of vocabulary. It is definitely not my prefered method to teach or learn a language. I agree that it is boring and the langauge should be used in context and that the Mary Had a Little Lamb is confusing and pointless. However, if you are just trying to pick up a few vocabulary words and want to hear the pronuciation, it is not that bad. Just don't expect to be able to say any meaningful sentences afterwards. I can't wait to hear what you think about the other videos.

  4. I'd be very interested to know about any studies that have been done on the effectiveness of DVDs on vocab development/grammatical structure of bilingual children being raised in a monolingual country, where the DVD was in the minority target language, highlighting kids around the age of 2 or 3. And I think the use of DVDs also depends a lot on how developed a child's language is, anyway, how it is used in the household, whether someone watches it with the child and if they talk about it afterwards.

    Makes sense that DVDs such as Baby Einstein wouldn't be that effective for the younger ones, but I can guarantee that my child gains vocab from certain DVDs geared toward preschoolers that she wouldn't necessarily have otherwise. I'm the primary source of her English, and today she came up and asked for some playdoh so she could make a coil pot. She also identified a trapezoid at some point in the recent past. I am 100% sure I have never spoken with her about either a coil pot or a trapezoid, and I know where it came from. Blue's Clues. This is not to say that this should be the main way kids learn language, but obviously it is having some effect. It's also clear that she can learn an amazing amount of language from other kids, but if those aren't readily available, then I'm not against trying DVDs in reasonable amounts.

    I don't think the DVD debate is over; more research is needed. And a lot of kids who already have a foundation in a minority language such as Griffin and my daughter can probably benefit from good quality shows with a strong storyline. I also wonder how effective they'd be in cartoon format versus humans with puppets, since kids still need to look at faces at this point, right? I think there probably is a certain level of language-readiness necessary, but that will be different for each kid. There's still a lot to learn.

    (btw Sarah, I did e-mail you. No worries either way)

  5. I agree with Adriana that these videos are probably ok for learning a few vocabulary words if you are starting totally from scratch. They are geared towards families where the mom is NOT a French teacher and speaking French with her son, I would say! Griffin is totally light years ahead of this obviously, and I would concentrate on getting actual French videos for actual French kids.

    It is true that kids have to learn from an actual person, but after a certain point they DO learn bits and pieces from TV/videos as well. Otherwise how would my daughter know the name of every character in Waybuloo when we don't watch it very often and I don't even know them all and so can't have taught her myself? o_O She comes up with words and phrases, and maybe even more importantly, intonations/accent, from certain shows as well, that she has certainly not heard elsewhere. And if you take the opportunity to not just watch the show but talk about it together, it can prompt you to discuss things you wouldn't have thought about otherwise. Win-win. :)

    But...I don't think you'll get much mileage out of classic teach your baby x language videos. Look at the bright side, though...I doubt they even exist for Czech!

  6. One of my next movie reviews will be of "Globetoddlers French" which does introduce elements of French culture! (I also bought their Spanish DVD but haven't watched it yet.)

    Jeanne mentions that Bilingual Baby does actually give viewers entire sentences. I saw the Bilingual Baby French DVD on Amazon but was so tired of lame French learning videos that I didn't want to buy it.

    I'm now very curious about the differences between bilingual and monolingual kids watching videos. It's true that the research shows that you can't plop your kid in front of the television and expect his conversational ability to grow as a result, but as you readers have pointed out, kids can still learn about topics from what they watch on TV. (My mother swears that I learned my letters, colors, and numbers from Sesame Street at ages 1-2. And look at PMF's kid who now knows what a trapezoid is, thanks to Blue's Clues!)

    But if we're interacting with our kids while they watch, like Melissa describes, then doesn't that mean we're giving them a richer context, because the audio-visual components add contextual elements that weren't there?

    Yes, these generally dorky learn-to-speak-French videos aren't intended for kids like Griffin who have heard French all along (albeit just from one person). He probably isn't getting as much out of them as, say, Adriana's kids. (She's learning French along with them; they're already bilingual in Spanish and English. Go read her blog already! It's called "My Bilingual Boys.") But I still want better quality in these DVDs, whether they're intended for Griffin or for Diego!

    I do want to find more French videos (designed for French toddlers/preschoolers) for Griffin to watch, but right now I'm happy with the YouTube clips. He sits on my lap and we watch and talk together. Eventually, though, I hope he can watch shows about kids in francophone countries, maybe like Sesame Street, with strong storylines, like PMF says. (The YouTube clips are mostly animations of animals acting like kids.

    Hey, if anyone has suggestions for Czech videos, pass them on to Melissa!

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments and reactions, everyone!

  7. I'm such a dork, but I want to read this just to see:

    Check out page 45. And I realize that 2 new vocabulary words doesn't mean all that much in the greater scheme of things, but it was a concrete example. I have this perception of a DVD-related 'declic' happening at the age of 2, when she finally got to hear some other people speaking English besides me.

  8. Sorry, I should have expressed myself more clearly. Babies do not learn to speak a language by watching a DVD. Obviously older dc can learn things from DVDs. There was a study of 9 month old babies who interacted with native Chinese speakers, and then other babies watched the exact same interaction on TV. Only the babies who had actually been with the native speakers later showed sensitivity to the sounds of Chinese. I also just recently read about the case of a child whose parents were both deaf. They had him watch TV, thinking he would learn to speak from that. He had no other consistent interaction with people who spoke out loud. At the age of 3, he could not speak at all, and needed intensive speech therapy to learn to speak.

  9. Those research studies are very compelling, Jeanne and PMF! And the fact that each of them is quite different from the others makes it especially interesting. Thanks for telling us about them.

    Sometimes I wish there were one easy definitive answer to all the questions we encounter when raising kids bilingually, but right now I'm just enjoying the fascinating complexity of it!

  10. I found this blog because I was showing my son (he's 2 and 1/2) this fun new video I was going to get (Brainy Baby French). But after reading this, I don't want to get it! I'm very interested in introducing him to new languages, but I dislike the videos that are just repeating words. I believe babies are capable of so much more than these types of videos give.
    So do you have any suggestions for videos that are better?
    Thanks so much!

  11. Welcome, Steffany!

    The video I like a lot better than Brainy Baby is "Globetoddlers Adventures in French":

    The company also makes a DVD about Mexico which you can watch with a Spanish, English, French, or Chinese soundtrack!