Dora the Explorer

If you have a little kid, you probably know that Dora the Explorer is all the rage. Since I have neither a child nor cable, I only get to watch it when I’m at the home of someone who has both. Despite the fact that I’ve seen Dora only a few times, I still have something to say.

The important part about this show is that Dora is Latina, and part of the mission of the show is to teach little Anglo kids Spanish words and phrases. (Sorry to be snarky–actually, I’ve heard that the show is in fact very popular among the Latino population.) Here’s a description from Nick Jr:

How does Dora the Explorer teach Spanish?
In each episode of Dora the Explorer, Dora solves a problem based on specific words and phrases in conversational Spanish, which preschoolers learn as they solve the problem with her. These words and phrases include a variety of basic nouns, adjectives, and commands, such as “azul” for “blue”, and “cuidado”, which means “watch out”.

The problem is that I don’t really know how the show can possibly succeed at this goal. Everytime I’ve seen an episode, the Spanish words are embedded in an entirely English phrase, and could well be mistaken for an English word. For example, Dora might explain to one of her sidekicks that they need to toss a ball into a basket, so she’ll say, “Boots, this is the pelota. See the pelota? We need to get the pelota into the basket.” Very often she introduces nouns, which kids might easily see as an alternative word for some object. I’ve only once seen a verb used, when Jack (of Beanstalk fame) told her to climb up the beanstalk: “Sube, Dora, Sube! You have to get to the top of the beanstalk!” Even that could be mistaken for an imperative English verb that a child had never heard.

Without any other syntactic input (as in, a full sentence), it seems very unlikely to me that young children will ever be able to use Dora as a tool to learn some Spanish. Nothing in her utterances conflicts with English grammar, which would seem to just lead kids to learn these words as new lexical items of English.

But I swear, there’s a tie to phonology here! Sometimes, there are phonological aspects of Dora’s utterances that do belie a difference between the Spanish words and the English ones. In her production of a word like pelota, there are no reduced vowels, and the [t] isn’t aspirated, for example. Sube might have a voiced bilabial fricative. So this leads me to wonder: are these phonetic/phonological cues enough to tip an English-speaking child off? If the child has never heard Spanish before, will she possibly hypothesize that these words can’t be lexical items of English? Or will she just treat them as exceptions of a sort (kind of like Zsa Zsa)? Or are the kids just going to be hopelessly confused, producing aspirated and unaspirated stops or labiodental and bilabial fricatives in free variation? (I guess that would also depend on how much exposure they had to the show.)

I’m guessing that the creators of this show don’t have much in the way of linguistic or even pedagogical background.