How to Use Cartoons to Learn a Language with Your Kids Language Resources

Are you using cartoons to expose your kids to a new language? Here’s how to turn it from a passive experience to an effective language learning activity for both of you.

Let’s start by clearing something up. Just sitting your kid in front of 2 hours of Tintin a day isn’t going to do the job ok? If it did, this would be a really short post and everybody would have multilingual kids. And yet so often on forums and threads when someone is looking for advice I see ‘watch cartoons’. This advice really frustrates me because it leads you towards two language traps – (1) that passive listening is an effective strategy and (2) that some people are talented at languages and some people aren’t.

If you expect your kids to speak or understand a language even after many hours of watching you’re going to be disappointed and disheartened or worse, think that your child just doesn’t have the ‘language gene’.

This is because your kids are doing passive listening. They are following the story by watching the images (children are remarkably visually literate) and ignoring or letting the language wash over them.

BUT, before you delete your library of Netflix cartoons or your Youtube playlist, read on. I’ll show you how cartoons are an incredibly useful resource for supporting your child’s language learning. It’s all about how you use them.

Why Cartoons Are Great for Language Learning

Children love cartoons. And you shouldn’t underestimate the power of having a language resource that is enjoyable. For instance, there’s no way I would want to sit down and work through a textbook but I am happy to tackle complicated grammar and vocabulary in the novel that I’m reading.

Children, particularly young children will happily watch the same cartoons over and over again – this is an amazing opportunity you can use to your advantage. And, by the way, it’s fantastic for your own language learning as well.

I found that although I had faith in the advice that watching a scene from a movie repeatedly had immense benefits, I rarely had the patience to carry it out. Although I knew it was useful it didn’t feel useful and I was always itching to move on to the next new thing, the next episode of Bref or the next quiz on Journal En Français Facile. But I can truly say that being forced to re-watch the same episode of Caillou over and over again by my 3-year-old has been absolutely brilliant for my own listening comprehension. Now, it really niggles if there is a word or expression that I didn’t quite catch or don’t recognize and I genuinely look forward to watching it again the next day to try to pin it down.

They Use Natural Phrases and Expressions

If you select the right cartoon, it will be packed full of useful relevant everyday vocabulary.

We can use all of these things to our advantage to turn watching cartoons from a passive, not very useful pastime to an awesomely effective tool.

When I first started using cartoons with my toddler, I had two vague goals in mind – that he would hear a ‘proper’ French accent with native pronunciation and that he might start to pick up some of the language. At that point, I had been learning French for a little while myself but I wasn’t confident in my own ability to speak it to him. I figured that the only way he was going to get exposure to the language was through listening to music and watching cartoons.

In the beginning, I watched the cartoons with him and occasionally pointed out some of the words. I knew that it would be a good opportunity to practice my own listening comprehension and I was pleased that I could get the gist of what was being said, even if I wasn’t looking at the screen. So far, so good right?

But then our progress ground to a halt…

It started to become much less effective. Because I could ‘get the gist’, I mentally crossed ‘cartoon watching’ off my list of useful resources for my own study. Unconsciously, I had given myself a big tick next to the activity and was ready to move on to find new material for my listening comprehension.

Soon, I started to try to be more ‘productive’ with my time and do household jobs whilst he was watching. I’m sure everyone who has kids can relate to this temptation… They are happy, settled, no-one is arguing and they’re going to be fine on their own for the next few minutes. That’s just enough time to stack the dishwasher, start cooking dinner or start any one of those hundreds of jobs you have been trying to get done that day. At the same time I was getting frustrated because I was finding less and less time to fit in my own language learning every day.

I knew that he wasn’t really getting much benefit from passively watching the cartoons and I also wasn’t getting any effective study time so our progress ground to a halt.

So I changed the way we watch cartoons.

It wasn’t until I took The Eurolinguiste Busy Language Learner Course (thanks, Shannon!) that I realized what I was doing wrong. I was taking the course to try to carve out some more time for my own French study, but Shannon made me realize that the time watching cartoons with my toddler could be really effective French learning time for both of us.

This is the email I sent to Shannon when I had a ‘lightbulb’ moment and realized I had been going about it all the wrong way:

“I had not even considered cartoon watching as a language learning activity for me! I had mentally filed it as ‘language learning for the kids’…but you have inspired me to totally rethink the way we watch cartoons. I’ve now turned it from a passive (and therefore pretty useless) experience for the kids into a really interactive, effective language experience for all of us!”

I had been completely dismissing the value of watching cartoons for my own French study and I was also preventing my toddler from having an effective learning experience. I needed to develop a system to make this an active, productive learning session that we could both benefit from.

If watching a cartoon was going to be an effective learning time, I had to be totally present with my toddler, sitting alongside him, concentrating, engaging and interacting. After all, when I read to him, I don’t try to do the washing up at the same time! Children learn language by interacting – this is an active process.

Cartoons are a great language resource, but it’s up to you to take that resource and turn it into an active, social experience. Otherwise, it’s about as much use as sitting your kids down and presenting them with a French / English dictionary. It’s stuffed full of useful language but looking through it isn’t going to turn them into French speakers!

So I sat down and took some time to work out some ways that I could make the time more effective for him. I also reassessed my own feelings about using the cartoons as listening comprehension. I decided that ‘getting the gist’ wasn’t good enough – my new goal was going to be to hear and understand every word, phrase and expression.

The results have been amazing for both of us – not only has it made TV time a fun, bonding experience but it has definitely improved his understanding and enriched his vocabulary. It has also had some surprising benefits for me that I hadn’t predicted. I’ll share these in a moment, but first, here’s my guide to getting more value from watching cartoons.

My Step-by-Step Guide to Making Your TV Time more productive [cartoon image 4]

Step 1: Choose your cartoon.

It’s worth putting in a bit of effort at this stage to research a good cartoon. If your own listening comprehension isn’t quite strong enough yet, it’s well worth finding a cartoon with subtitles in your target language. When I’m researching a new cartoon for my little boy, I ask myself 3 questions:

* Will he like it?
* Will he be able to follow the story without understanding the language? (I think this is really important for him to be able to enjoy what he is watching)
* Is the vocabulary going to be useful?

If your target language is French, you’re in luck because comics and cartoons are a staple of French culture (think Asterix, Tin Tin, Lucky Luke). However, my absolute favourite cartoon for my kids is Caillou. It’s a French-Canadian cartoon about a little boy who is about 3/4 years old and his everyday experiences. It deals with lots of real-life situations like going to the dentist, the doctor, the beach, nursery, the park and his relationship with his family. I love that the familiar situations means it is instantly relatable even if you don’t understand a word of French. It also means that the phrases and vocabulary are relevant to our everyday lives so I know that I have a good source of accurate, natural sounding phrases that I can use when I’m speaking to my kids. Whatever your target language, a Google or Youtube search can usually bring up a few popular cartoons. (I was really chuffed to discover I could watch Bing! in Welsh the other day!)

Step 2: Watch it yourself.

Your first time watching can be with or without your child. Your goals on this first watch are to understand as much as possible. You don’t need to worry if you don’t catch everything (unless you want to), the point is to listen attentively. If you need to, watch it on your own first with subtitles and pause to look up words if you think you have missed something important.

Pick out one or two things that are relevant to your own life at the moment. For example, over Christmas we watched episodes about putting up a Christmas Tree and making a snowman. We were doing both these activities ourselves at around this time so I knew I would have opportunities to use the vocabulary with my kids. It can be something really small, like, maybe a character goes on an escalator and there is an escalator at your local shopping centre – it really can be anything you think you might be able to use in your everyday life in the next few days.

Step 3″ Make notes.

Choose a couple of words / phrases / whole sentences that are useful and relevant to you and jot them down.

See how this is already great for your own study? You’re engaging in active listening, checking vocabulary and writing down useful phrases. Now you’re going to apply what you’ve been doing to improve your children’s understanding. This application will also reinforce your own learning and give you opportunities to review and repeat the material in a fun way with your kids. Awesome right?

Step 4: Watch again.

The next time you watch TV in your target language, watch the same episode again. Now it’s all about drawing your child’s attention to the words / phrases you picked out and helping them to train their ear. When you first listen to a new language it sounds like one continuous string of babble, you don’t know where one word ends and one begins. We think that we leave gaps between words when we speak like when we write but those gaps are imaginary – your brain inserts spaces for you once you are familiar with the language. You are going to help your child start to pick out individual words from the stream.

There are a number of ways to do this depending on the age and personality of your child.

Here are a few ideas:

Explain a word / phrase. Let’s say one of the phrases you jotted down is ‘c’est l’heure du dîner’ (it’s dinner time). When you hear the character say it, pause and say something like- ‘Caillou’s mum just said c’est l’heure du dîner. That means it’s dinner time. C’est l’heure du dîner.’ Say the target language phrase slowly and clearly and repeat it a couple of times.

Bingo. There are so many ways you can vary this game to keep it fun.

You can go all out and make cards to mark off with a prize, it can be competitive (although I strongly suggest letting them win most of the time!) or collaborative, you can keep a tally of how many times a particular word or phrase is said in an episode and see if you get the same number on the next watch or just simply say ‘tell me when you hear the word ‘_______’. You can gradually increase the difficulty by just listening for one word / phrase when you watch for the first time and then the next time you watch the same episode you can listen out for 2 or 3 different words.

Encourage their inference skills. For example, when I first introduced the words for ‘snowman’ in French, I paused the episode and said ‘It’s snowing and Caillou wants to make un bonhomme de neige in the garden’ What do you think un bonhomme de neige is? This is excellent training for their inference skills when they are reading / watching in their native language as well so it’s a win-win strategy!

Contextualise. In other words, try to link what you’re watching to something happening in your own lives. We watched an episode recently where Caillou made a card for his dad. We had just made a card for my toddler’s great grandmother so this was a perfect opportunity to put my key phrases into a real life context that had happened that day. The narrator in the cartoon said ‘Caillou a fait une carte pour son Papa’. So I paused and repeated slowly ‘Caillou a fait une carte’ then I said to my toddler ‘tu as fait une carte for great grandma today’.

Use the words / sentences in the next few days as often as possible when they are relevant to what you are doing. If you’ve chosen well, you should be able to find lots of opportunities to use them, if you’re struggling to work your phrases into a conversation, no sweat, have another go tomorrow! You can also extend this by adding variations e.g. ‘tu veux faire une carte pour Papa aussi?’ ‘d’accord, on va faire une carte pour Papa plus tard’ ‘Papa, on a fait une carte pour toi!’ (Do you want to make a card for daddy as well? Ok, we are going to make a card for daddy later. Daddy, we made a card for you!)

Something really important that I need to mention here is to always let your kids be the guide. If they are doing well and having fun then by all means up the difficulty or expand the game. If they are not very responsive then take a step back. Always keep it light and fun and encouraging – don’t turn it into schoolwork or make them feel under pressure to perform.

If you follow this process you will see a big difference in the value you are getting from cartoons.

And those extra benefits I discovered?

When I was doing any kind of listening comprehension before, I was listening to understand. Now I find when we are watching cartoons, I am listening with the goal of being able to use the language. This has probably doubled my attentiveness. I have found that there is a massive difference between being able to completely understand a conversation and being able to accurately reproduce the same / similar sentences myself. I am noticing much more about the language and I find that I have a running commentary in my head of the things that I am observing or need to check, like Was that de or du? c’est or il est? Was that verb reflexive? Which verb do they use in this collocation? etc.

So my new year’s resolution is to keep following the steps above to put an end to passive listening and make TV time a rich language experience that we can share. I need to remind myself that this is a productive time for both of us as well as lovely bonding time, it’s exactly what I need to be doing at that moment in time and it deserves my full attention. The housework will just have to wait until the end of this episode…or maybe after the next one.

What about you?

Do you use cartoons to expose your children to your target language? What cartoons do you watch and how do you use them?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

About the Author // Francesca Pursell is a mother, language learner and former teacher who created her website makinglittlelinguists.com to write about ways that beginner and intermediate language learners can help their children learn a new language. Her own language adventures began with French and she has recently begun to learn Welsh. She is continually finding ways of incorporating French into family life with her two young children. She has created a Cartoon Watching Cheat Sheet to go with this blog post which can be downloaded here.



I'm a language lover, traveler and musician sharing my adventures and language learning tips over at Eurolinguiste. Join me on Facebook for daily language learning and travel tips!

  • I totally agree that simply watching cartoons isn’t enough. When I was teaching in Korea, I used to watch cartoons with the kids. These were often cartoons they had already watched in Korea so watching them in English was easy because they already knew the story.

    After watching, I would ask them to talk about their favorite character or to discuss the plot. The questions weren’t easy to answer but they loved the cartoons so it was easy to get them to talk about it and talking about something imaginary somehow made them less shy than if I had simply asked them questions about their life.

    • Turning the cartoons into a conversation is a great idea.