Audio Transcript:

Once in every while, a 'parents group' complains about the content of kids TV, whether it's a gay Teletubby or single-sex parents of a Postcards with Buster episode. The most recent controversy involving Spanish-speaking Dora the Explorer, which prompts the question: is it confusing with TV characters sprinkle their English with Spanish (Dora) or Chinese (Ni Hao Kai Lan). The World's Alex Gallafent reports.

MARCO WERMAN: A few months ago, a picture began making the rounds online. It's a mug shot of the children's TV character, Dora the Explorer. She has a black eye and is holding a sign that states her crime, ?Illegal Border Crossing, Resisting Arrest.? Whatever the creator's intent, the picture has become a prop in the heated American debate over illegal immigration. The World's Alex Gallafent decided to explore what, if anything, this bilingual cartoon character says about America.

ALEX GALLAFENT: Perhaps you don't watch Nickelodeon or Nick Jr. Perhaps you don't have kids. If so, you just might not know who Dora the Explorer is. Dora is a young Hispanic girl. It's not clear from where exactly, excited about seeing the world, or chasing rainbows, in the company of a menagerie of friends. And she throws in a Spanish word from time to time. So that black eye does seem a little intense.

LYNNE MCVEIGH: To do this to this character with this kind of an image is saying in a way the ridiculousness of this type of prejudice.

GALLAFENT: Lynne McVeigh is a children's TV expert at New York University. What's striking about Dora's show, she says, is that it's not really about being Hispanic.

MCVEIGH: She is not actually promoting Hispanic culture. It is the fact that she is Hispanic. So in the adventures she goes on, the culture is not being revealed.

GALLAFENT: It simply is, just as it is in the United States. But Dora the Explorer is a children's fantasy, not the real world. So should a show like Dora present the world as it actually is? Or the world as it might become? Or the world, perhaps, that it ought to be? Those questions can be asked of any children's TV. But they're particularly loaded when you're talking about a TV show that presents the changing voice of America.

BIG BIRD: A question is what you ask somebody when there's something you want to find out. Like?

GALLAFENT: Like what are these shows telling our kids? Thanks Big Bird. Sesame Street has one of the longest track records of incorporating diversity in its cast of characters. But the show's executive producer, Carol-Lynn Parente insists diversity isn't something they go out and seek. For instance, there's a long-running character on the show called Rosita. She's bilingual, speaking Spanish and English.

CAROL-LYNN PARENTE: We didn't set out to create a character that spoke Spanish. We happened to cast a wonderful puppeteer in Carmen Osbahr who is just a Mexican American. And so she is bilingual and we worked that into her character.

GALLAFENT: What Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer do is present a positive vision of a world in which diversity is considered normal and valuable. Kids get a picture of that created world and then they're offered a few linguistic and cultural tools to navigate it.

PARENTE: You know we really try at Sesame Street to prepare them for what they're going to encounter in life.

GALLAFENT: So what are they actually going to encounter? For the majority of Americans, normal is a world in which the dominant language is English. But that's not necessarily going to be the case forever as demographic shifts help other languages catch up. So ought there to be a principal, chosen language for America? US English, a self-described citizen's action group in Washington, says ?Yes.? It argues that all official business in the United States ought to be conducted in English. Spokesman Tim Shultz says this doesn't mean other languages losing their place in American life, including in TV shows for young kids.

TIM SHULTZ: We think that these programs, which are targeted at native English speakers and help them learn another language are fantastic.

GALLAFENT: But, referring to a recent study, he identifies English as the language that makes Americans American.

SHULTZ: Immigrants who speak English in their home are 17 times more likely to self identify as Americans than those who don't. 17 times more likely. So the link between sort of language and how you see the world, the link between learning English and sort of transferring an immigrant's allegiance gradually to the United States, those things are tied together very, very tightly.

GALLAFENT: Of course, many non-English-speaking pre-schoolers aren't immigrants at all, they're native-born Americans who happen to speak a language at home that isn't English. So where does that leave things? English is by far the dominant language in the United States. But Spanish is a language of America too, and it's growing rapidly. And there are countless others.

KAI-LAN SONG

GALLAFENT: That's Kai-lan, another animated preschooler. This one the star of a different series from Nickelodeon, Ni Hao, Kai-Lan. Kai-lan explicitly introduces the audience to Chinese language and Chinese-American culture. Nickelodeon, in its marketing materials, says ?Ni Hao, Kai-Lan reinforces the idea that being bicultural and bilingual is being American.? But if Kai-lan is the Chinese Dora, she has an easier road. Chinese immigration is hardly the hot button issue that immigration from Hispanic countries is. So, maybe we won't be seeing pictures of Kai-lan with a black eye. By the way, Dora the Explorer airs in the United States in a Spanish version too. The foreign words she helps kids learn are in English. For The World, I'm Alex Gallafent.

WERMAN: For more stories about language, check out our weekly podcast ?The World in Words.? In the latest edition, a British politician calls French a ?useless? language to learn. He prefers Spanish and Chinese. To hear The World in Words, go to TheWorld.org/Language. This is PRI.