Watching your toddler acquire new language skills as he grows and explores the world around him is one of many truly rewarding experiences you will have as a parent.
“In a space of two years, a crying infant transforms into a talking toddler, picking up, on average, 200 words—almost half of the 500 words used most frequently in typical adult conversation,” writes Heidi Murkoff in What to Expect the Toddler Years. “The normal range varies from child to child, from a couple of dozen words to 400 or more.”
By 15 months, the majority – about 75 percent – of children have a vocabulary that consists of “mama” and “dada,” and at least three other words, usually nouns, such as “cookie,” “ball” and “dog.”
Other common early words include “more” and “no”, a word which every parent of a toddler is likely to hear many times. A typical 15-month-old can also follow simple commands, such as “bring me your cup,” or “put the book down.” She also understands the meanings of phrases such as “no,” “come here,” “show me,” and “look.”
The Way Toddlers Learn a Language
At about the fifteen-month mark, don’t be surprised if your little tyke takes a hiatus from speaking. This happens often after a toddler has mastered his first few words; this allows him to strengthen his receptive vocabulary (the words he understands) and “regroup” as he prepares to launch a whole new list of words.
Furthermore, a toddler may take a break from language acquisition to focus on a new skill. It is typical for him to switch off between different kinds of acquisitions and accomplishments: one week he concentrates on verbal skills, the next week physical skills, the following week social skills, then the next week back to verbal skills.
How You Can Help the Learning Curve
A toddler understands many words and concepts before using them in speech. She’ll be stimulated if you expose her to a wide variety of environments (the supermarket, library, museums, the zoo, etc.) and talk about what you both see using simple language.
Follow up a new experience with a library book that reinforces it: reading a book about a farm (“Remember the cows we saw?”) after a visit, for instance, will enhance learning.
Talk A LOT!
The more you talk to and around your toddler, the more likely he will be to talk. You might feel silly holding a one-sided conversation, but your little one will benefit, even if you sense that he has no clue what you’re talking about.
When you’re making lunch, give your toddler a blow-by-blow account as you get out the ingredients, spread the peanut butter on the bread, cut the sandwich in half. Of course toddlers also require down time; if you’re being tuned out (his eyes are turned elsewhere or are glazed), it’s time to stop the chit-chat to avoid auditory overload.
Be a Good Listener
Even if you don’t understand what your toddler is saying, paying attention to her while she speaks will encourage her to speak more.
“Meet your toddler at eye-to-eye level when he is talking to you. Be attentive even when you don’t understand what your toddler is trying to say,” says Dr. William Sears. “Give body language cues (nodding your head, eye-to-eye contact, hand on shoulder) that you are trying to understand his viewpoint.”
Reading to your little one from picture books and stopping to point out familiar objects in each picture as well as explain what’s going on in the story, provides invaluable exposure to language. We love this list of best books of all time for toddlers.
Children naturally love music and will listen closely to simple songs. Toddlers love songs that include hand-clapping or finger play (like “Patty-cake” and “The Itsy Bitsy Spider”). Sing the same songs over and over, as repetition helps a toddler’s vocabulary to grow.
Sound Like a Grown-Up
Although you may be tempted to use “baby talk” when speaking to your toddler, it may actually confuse her and won’t help her language development. Enjoy her cute versions of words (“sketti” for spaghetti) but stick to grown-up pronunciation yourself.
Sharpen Her Ear
While listening to conversation is important, so is listening to the birds singing, the telephone ringing and the water running in the bathtub. Point out different sounds to your little one.
You’ll encourage your child’s speaking skills by answering him when he speaks to you. Even if you have no clue what he’s saying, reply with “Hmm, isn’t that interesting?” or something similar.
Repeat What He Says
Repeating what your toddler says in other words (“Yes, I see the doggy,” “You want to play peek-a-boo?”) will greatly benefit her in more ways than one. It shows that you understand what she’s saying and gives you an opportunity to correct mispronunciations in a non-judgmental way.
Get Your Word’s Worth
When you speak to your toddler, try to use a single word in several ways. See the cat? The cat is drinking his water. The cat is thirsty. Expand and elaborate by using descriptive adjectives like “the big, tall tree” or “the furry dog.”
A final word for every parent of a toddler is to rest assured that if your child’s language development is within the normal range, but slower than average or slower than that of a sibling or peer, there is no need to worry.
Language development is not a sure sign of intellectual ability; in children who are otherwise alert and responsive and have plenty of verbal stimulation at home, it’s more often related to genetic predisposition than intelligence. (I personally have an uncle with a genius-level IQ who barely spoke a word until the age of three!)
Enjoy the many moments through the eyes and ears of your toddler. Watching your little one’s growth through learning new skills is truly a wonderful adventure!