Donders Wonders Blog

Why language learning can’t “hold on a sec“

This post is also available in Dutch.

Recent research shows that mobile phones may not only make life easier for families but that their use might also be working against language learning in young children.

Living in the digital age provides us with endless possibilities, even for the youngest amongst us. Today it is not only possible to video chat with grandparents anytime, but kids can also play all kinds of games on their parents’ phones while waiting for dinner. While there is an ongoing debate as to how these factors might influence a child’s development, a study published last year by Jessa Reed and colleagues at Temple University (U.S.A.) looked into an often overlooked side effect that new technologies have on parents’ behaviour.

Nowadays parents are often distracted by phone calls.

Image designed by Peoplecreations (license).

Having a mobile phone means that you are always reachable. While there are both good and bad things about being reachable, it inevitably causes distractions and interrupts daily activities. Although some claim they can multitask and therefore are not disturbed by their vibrating phones, studies show that very few people (an estimated 2% of the population) can actually attend to two things at the same time. Regardless, many parents use their phones all the time, either for calls or messages, asking their child to “hold on a sec.”

Reed and her team asked what effects these interruptions might have on toddlers who are trying to learn new words. Past research has shown that the way parents talk to their children can help them learn words. In particular, we know that joint attention (focusing on the same object as well as making sure that the focus is shared) is important for children to learn words. If the interaction between child and parent is interrupted due to random, unpredictable phone calls or messages, what does this mean for the child?

The set-up

For this study, researchers studied the interaction between mothers and their 2-year-old children. The mothers were instructed to play with their toddlers while in the waiting room and then teach them two new made-up words that describe actions (verbs). They were told that the experimenter would call the mother on her mobile phone, either to give her further instructions or to chat. The mothers were always to respond. The experimenter would always call during the explanation of one of the two words. Afterwards, the children’s understanding of the words was tested.

The verdict

So, what do the results show? When the parent was not called during the teaching phase, the child learned the word. On the other hand, when the mothers had to answer the phone, the children did not learn the word, even though the interruption was relatively brief (30 seconds).

This study shows just how drastic the consequences of even short interruptions by phone calls can be. Many parents nowadays play with their phones and answer messages without giving it a further thought… but it matters. If you are eating or playing with your children, it is more important to stay in touch with them than to respond to any call or message immediately. So, tell the world, not your child, to “hold on a sec.”


Want to find out more about how children learn languages? Then join us at the Kletskoppen Kindertaalfestival (Chatterboxes Children’s Language Festival) on Saturday, October 27th at the Marienburg library in Nijmegen for a fun and informative day full of science. For more information, visit


Written by Julia Egger, edited by Monica Wagner, and translated by Rowena Emaus.


Julia Egger is a PhD candidate at the Language Development Department of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics where she works on how the environment influences how children learn new words.

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