This blog was written by Dan Goodley, Co-Director of iHuman and Professor of Disability Studies and Education.

Just how much time should your child spend in front of a screen? As parents, we are our children’s gatekeepers (Hamilton, 2016), providing access not only to hardware, but also to apps and games. The younger the child, the more control we have. But ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ (and yes, that is the Spiderman quote) – how do we get it right? How do we know what’s best? And what happens when we have two conflicting views, at war with each other?

All families I work with in my research speak more than one language in the home, and all are aiming – to a greater or lesser extent – to pass this language on to their children. But, as Bourdieu (2000) points out, there is nothing inevitable about this kind of cultural and linguistic inheritance. My recently concluded research, funded by the UK Literacy Association, which was presented at the AILA research conference in Rio last summer and is currently awaiting reviews for a journal article and a book chapter, drew on data from 212 family questionnaires and 10 family interviews. The data showed that parents are unsure how to handle available technology. While 86% of parents reported their children were interested in mobile apps and games, and an encouraging 78% were interested in learning the heritage language, only 21% of families used apps and games in the heritage language regularly, and qualitative data illustrate why: while some parents struggle with an internal, perceived dilemma of “language learning good = screen use bad”, others lacked struggled to access resources, navigate app stores, and were unsure of consumer rights. For children, concerns were more fundamental – they showed an awareness of audience for games and apps, and felt they were neither fish nor fowl: while apps and games aimed at language learners were generally unengaging and too topical (“20 vocabulary items on clothing”), apps and games aimed at native speakers were often either age-inappropriate (aimed at much younger learners), or too difficult, and thus frustrating. The 8-year-old who explained to me that games aimed at “proper German children” were more fun sparked interesting discussions around identity. If you cannot access the same resources as a “proper German child”, but you are a heritage language speaker, then what are you? An improper German child? These questions are important if we want to understand the construction of heritage language identities (Little, 2017).

Parents have a role here that transcends that of the “gatekeeper”, and it is a role they are already very familiar with, because 87% of families involved in the research share books in the heritage language. And here’s the rub. Books are viewed as being for sharing, a multi-sensory, shared experience that involves spending time together, cuddling up on a sofa. Games and apps, on the other hand, were viewed by most parents as having to fulfil three goals: to entertain the child, to inspire the child to engage with the heritage language, and to actually teach or improve the heritage language, too – that’s a tall order. Marsh et al (2017) argue that the term ‘family literacy’ ought to be widened to include ‘family digital literacy’ – for families speaking multiple languages, this could be an important sign post to actively consider the role heritage language resources play in their daily lives. Whether it is a book or a mobile app or game, parents have the opportunity to be a bridge rather than a gatekeeper – to enjoy time together, share the gaming experience, take interest in the child’s motivation and interests. This way, children growing up with multiple languages are more likely to be able to engage with age-appropriate content, which in turn will make for a more authentic experience…and ultimately help both their language and their identity development.