Bilingualism and Cartoons

Being in a trilingual environment (Spanish and Russian indoors and English outdoors), there’s always the question of what language they kids should watch the cartoons.

(I’m skipping the debate on whether kids should watch cartoons at all. Let’s assume they’re going to watch them. So the question is in what language?)

Following our policy of maximising exposure to our languages in the early years as much as possible before primary school begins, we decided that our eldest would watch video content preferrably in Spanish or Russian.

Spoon-feeding cultural heritage with cartoons

It naturally started by traditional Russian cartoons — from the 60’s and 70’s — which complement the books and stories told by mum and grandma. For any Russian speaker interested, these are: Troe iz Prostokvashino, Cheburaskha, Kotenok Gav, the Russian Winnie Pooh etc. These are fine for a 3-year-old to understand, follow and sing along.

Classic Russian cartoons

I should note here that there is a very strong popular culture around these children stories and cartoons in Russia. Everyone knows them and they can pretty much recite the dialogs from these films verbatim. Being familiar with them isn’t just a language thing but a basic part of being Russian.

In the case of Spanish I introduced the award-winning show Pocoyó, which is also available in English with Stephen Fry as the narrator. Peppa Pig is another show that we initially introduced in Spanish.

Same episodes over and over and over

It’s in the human nature to enjoy things that are familiar to us. Most movie plots have the same structure and the themes and tropes that Hollywood movies use can be traced back to Greek tragedies and comedies.

With more limited set of experiences available to them, children also tend to enjoy that closed framework of familiar things by watching the same TV shows ad infinitum.

That’s nothing to worry about, it’s the same principle that leads them to always want the same food and be reluctant to new things, and to get upset if you take a different route on the way to school.

Culture vs Language

One thing I noticed is that my choice of modern cartoons in Spanish meant that his exposure to the heritage culture would be less compared to Russian. However, both Pocoyó and Peppa Pig are very good at depicting everyday situations and conflicts that children face.

Peppa Pig and Pocoyó

So, on the other hand, he was could be gaining more vocabulary applicable to his life challenges; namely: a new kid in school, having to share a new toy, being jealous of a little brother, the car breaks down, learning to ride a bike unaided, new shoes I don’t want to wear, a field trip with school, etc.

These story plots may stimulate imagination less than a fairy tale, but children find it very easy to identify themselves with the characters and the storylines. It’s also easier to extract lessons learned from them.

The Eye Of The Beholder

“Should I sit with my kids and watch cartoons with them?” You should. Sometimes at least. With the advent of on-demand TV, randomness in what’s on is eliminated. You can control the playlists and somewhat suggest your kid what they’re going to watch today.

From time to time I sit with him and freely pause the show to explain sentences that I’m sure he hasn’t understood or to ask him to tell me what’s going on.

The attitude is completely different when watching accompanied. He is very eager to explain me in his own words what this character has done to that character and make me a part of the activity. He even looks less mesmerised when I’m actively around.

Filling gaps

It’s no longer sitting down in front of the TV and just watch what there is. With the advent of on-demand TV, children can ask (or demand) what they want to watch.

Around the age of 4, we noticed that our son would not only say what he wants to watch, but also in which language. There was a fair share of cartoons that were available in 2 or even all 3 languages. He would just say: “I want to watch Peppa Pig in Russian”. This has enabled him to close the loop on many words that he know in one language and not the others. We are very fortunate that he is constantly asking how things are called in the other languages.

For example, he first learned the concept and the word for “rusty” in Spanish by watching Cars (2006). He the asked to watch it in Russian and, more recently, in English. We were a bit reluctant to let him watch it in English, but he made us understand that he was struggling to talk about it with his friends in the English nursery because he didn’t know the characters’ names or how some plot details were described in English. Peer pressure played some minor role here.

What will the future bring

I promise an update when he starts primary school in September.

Cartoons he has shown interest about

  • Russian Classics: Troe iz Prostokvashino, Kotenok Gav, Cheburashka(ru)
  • Dartacán y los tres Mosqueperros (es)
  • Patrulla Canina (Paw Patrol) (es)
  • Thomas the Tank Engine (en, ru)
  • Postman Pat (en)
  • Pocoyo (es, en)
  • Peppa Pig (es, ru, en)
  • Heroes Of The City (ru)
  • Chuggington (ru)



Software Engineer | talks about software, multilingual children

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