Learning to Communicate in the Virtual World


Screen time is playing a bigger and bigger role in children’s lives. With the rapid development of technology, not only do children spend time watching TV and playing video games, but many in-person interactions are becoming replaced by virtual communication, especially in expat families. The corona pandemic increased the need for video calls to keep in touch with relatives and friends even more. For my daughter and me, video calls with extended family became a daily routine, so much so that I started to wonder about the role this technology was playing in her language development.

I should probably state upfront that I think about my daughter’s language development more than the average parent, considering that she is simultaneously learning English, Dutch, Slovak, and occasionally some Taiwanese. This means that every time she hears the familiar ring, ring, ring… coming out of a computer, she does not know which language she is about to hear. Amazingly, even before she turned one and a half she learned which language she should speak to whom. This may, however, only seem amazing to me as her parent, considering that infants from bilingual environments are able to distinguish between languages from as early as four months old. Now that she is almost two, she also knows who doesn’t speak which language. If I am talking with her in Slovak, she sometimes provides prompt translations to her dad to bring him up to speed with the current game (although she is inclined to translate for him even more often if she has a request!). Interestingly, she does not perform these translations for her grandma (who only speaks Slovak) when her dad speaks to her in English during a video call. Would this have to do anything with the interaction being virtual? Is communication and language learning less optimal when a child cannot physically interact with someone, but only virtually interact?

In a previous article on this website, we established that children under two years old learn language less optimally from passive video watching than from in-person interactions. This is called the “video deficit”. In short, live interactions contain rich social cues and are more optimal for learning, considering that toddlers are more attentive during these interactions. This increased arousal and motivation are crucial for language acquisition. Interestingly, the video deficit could be (partly) overcome by interacting with your child while watching a video together. Thus, it seems that social interactions propel language learning in infants. What does that mean for virtual social interactions, through video calling?

Several studies found that toddlers between one and three learn vocabulary better from video calls, where (virtual) social interaction is present, compared to passively watching screens. It seems that being able to interact with the person on the screen helps children overcome the video deficit. Indeed, interacting through a video call still allows the child to perceive many social cues. Crucially, it also allows for “social contingency” as the caller reacts to the actions of the child in real-time and vice versa. Reacting in a temporally synchronized manner, such as a child waving when the caller says “hi” or repeating a novel word introduced by the caller, is a critical factor that may improve the effectiveness of learning language from video calls as compared to passive videos. Social contingency is likely to boost toddler’s attention and motivation to learn and interact.

In one study, toddlers learned novel words and actions from unfamiliar people, either by passively watching a prerecorded video of a person or by having an interactive video call with a person. It turns out, one week later, toddlers recognized the person from the video call better. Moreover, they learned more novel words and patterns from the interactive video chat, compared to the pre-recorded video. Adding anecdotal evidence to this, I can confirm that my daughter will engage in a lot of silly virtual activities with her grandparents, such as high-fiving the screen, showing them her stuffed kitty when their cat walks by the screen, or even repeating a song that they sang to her. In contrast, she never engages in similar behaviors while watching cartoons. Instead she tends to simply sit in front of the computer, staring at the screen in awe. Even though these are well-deserved moments of rest for me as a parent, I suspect that I should rather encourage screen time filled with virtual interactions, since this helps more with building up language as well as her relationship with grandparents.

There are several factors that influence toddlers’ engagement in video calls. It has been shown that toddlers might learn language better from videos that depict familiar people. My daughter frequently requests to talk to “Babka” [grandma in Slovak], especially after an in-person visit, and she interacts with her throughout the majority of the call. When we call friends or family that my daughter did not get to meet, she is quite shy and she loses interest in the call a lot more quickly. I personally believe that there are many more factors that influence children’s attention and subsequent language learning during a video call, such as the amount of interaction or the type of interaction or activity . For example, a couple of weeks ago, my daughter asked to talk to “teta Soňa” [auntie Soňa], even though we had not spoken to her in months. This was definitely a lesson for me about how much I underestimated the long term memory of a young toddler. Auntie Soňa is a kindergarten teacher and during their last call she sang many new songs for my daughter. So it is very likely that this fun and new activity imprinted in her memory so well, allowing her to remember Auntie Soňa even after not seeing her for a couple of months.

To sum up, toddlers can learn language from virtual interactions, especially when the virtual world is engaging and stimulating. Nevertheless, even though video calls do contain many social and interactive cues, several aspects of real life conversations will always be missing, even during the most optimal video call. Cues like depth and motion, for instance, are not well captured on camera. Additionally, calls frequently have lags with respect to audio or video. Conversations require precise timing, especially while speakers switch turns. Such lags may prove to be quite challenging especially for a toddler that is just starting to participate in conversations. Thus, even though video calls may be more optimal for language learning compared to passive video watching, they are (not yet) comparable with real life interactions. And in fact, both my daughter and I will be happy to abandon the virtual peekaboo games and return to in-person socializing when possible.

Read more:
Bosch, L., Sebastián-Gallés, N., 2001. Evidence of Early Language Discrimination Abilities in Infants From Bilingual Environments. Infancy 2, 29–49. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15327078IN0201_3
Krcmar, M., 2010. Can Social Meaningfulness and Repeat Exposure Help Infants and Toddlers Overcome the Video Deficit? Media Psychol. 13, 31–53. https://doi.org/10.1080/15213260903562917
McClure, E., Barr, R., 2017. Building Family Relationships from a Distance: Supporting Connections with Babies and Toddlers Using Video and Video Chat, in: Barr, R., Linebarger, D.N. (Eds.), Media Exposure During Infancy and Early Childhood. Springer International Publishing, Cham, pp. 227–248. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-45102-2_15
Myers, L.J., LeWitt, R.B., Gallo, R.E., Maselli, N.M., 2017. Baby FaceTime: can toddlers learn from online video chat? Dev. Sci. 20, 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.12430
Roseberry, S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R.M., 2014. Skype Me! Socially Contingent Interactions Help Toddlers Learn Language. Child Dev. 85, 956–970. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12166

Writer: Cecilia Hustá
Editor: Melis Cetincelik
Dutch translation: Caitlin Decuyper
German translation: Natascha Roos
Final editing: Eva Poort, Merel Wolf