Children watching TVRex

Most parents know that too much television is bad for kids. We're constantly bombarded with guilt-inducing studies that warn us about all the awful things that will befall children who spend too much time watching television. They'll be obese, at risk of heart disease and will wind up well behind their peers when it comes to important things like language development and social skills.

So would you feel less guilty about plonking your child in front of the goggle box if their screen time was spent watching an educational programme that could teach them a new language?

And not just any old European tongue but Mandarin - the language of the economic superpower of the future - and the lingo which, experts say, will one day replace French, German and Spanish on the national curriculum. Indeed, many secondary schools already offer pupils the opportunity to study Mandarin to GCSE level. But now there's no need to wait till then - your pre-schooler can get started with her budding business lingo right away.

Starting today on CBeebies, The Lingo Show is a new language programme aimed at four to six-year-olds. Each 11-minute episode revolves around a cartoon bug called Wei, who teaches children the basics of Mandarin - including how to count to 10 - through games and songs.

Other languages featured in the series include Polish, Urdu, and Punjabi.

According to Dr Frances Weightman, senior lecturer in Chinese studies at the University of Leeds, Mandarin isn't necessarily a difficult language for children to learn. She says: "It's tonal, so it lends itself very well to imitation and nursery rhymes, singing, that kind of thing." And the purpose of the show, according to CBeebies, is to introduce children to different languages and cultures.

But is there any need? Statistics show that England's schools are much more diverse than they were five years ago, with children from ethnic minorities making up almost a quarter of all pupils. So if modern kids are exposed to different languages and cultures in both the classroom and the playground, do we really need to hijack their leisure time with programmes that pack yet more learning into the precious few hours they spend trying to relax?

To me, teaching four year olds to count in Mandarin smacks of Tiger Parenting, the phrase coined by Chinese mother and author Amy Chua whose book about the merits of strict Chinese parenting methods, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, caused a furore last year.

What's more, we're told that more and more children are starting primary school lacking basic life skills such as the ability to get dressed or use the toilet, and leave school unable to spell or perform simple maths without the aid of a calculator.

If that's all true, shouldn't we be investing time and money in educational programmes which address the more pressing matter of the very real gaps in children's learning? Bring back Sesame Street, I say.

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Because really, if your child can't hold a pencil or count to 10 in English on her first day at school, is anyone really going to care whether she knows that 'fen hong se' is Mandarin for 'pink'?

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What do you think?
Do you think catching them young is a good idea when it comes to language skills?
Or should we concentrate on the basics first?