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Language Development in Toddlers
There is nothing more adorable than tiny, high-pitched, cartoony toddler voices with lots and lots to say. It is truly remarkable how quickly your child’s language development can sometimes creep up on you. One day it’s babbling, and it can seem like the next day, it’s full sentences.
Language acquisition is partly innate and partly learned through experiences with other people in a child’s world. Whatever your family structure may be, a grandparent, single parent or couple raising a child, you are the most 'significant other' your child interacts with communicatively. The way you engage with him or her will determine the path that language development takes in the vital first five years.
Repetition, repetition, repetition:
All children thrive on routines and limits and knowing what to expect – in all areas of their life. Routines, especially language routines, make it much easier for children to learn because of the consistent exposure, but children also learn what is expected of them. The more often your little one hears “The Wheels on the Bus,” or reads “Goodnight Moon” every night, they learn the language routine and older toddlers will begin to sing along or fill in missing words from the book. So next time you pull out “Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see?” try leaving off the final word on the page and see if your child fills in “looking at … ME,” like they have heard again and again. Although singing the same songs over and over can be dull to an adult, the repetition builds your child’s confidence in knowing what is going to come next, as they often also start to fill in missing words or sing along. Also, using a language routine can help children build new words into their vocabulary. Vocabulary can be built by combining the words that your child already knows with new terms. If your daughter loves to say “bye bye” to everyone that she passes, have her practice saying “bye bye” to her different toys or to the colors of the blocks or the animals that you see on your walk.
By 2 ½ years old, children have an average vocabulary of 200 words or more! After they have roughly 50 words, then youngsters begin to combine words together to create new meanings and more complex phrases. [insert link to language learning toys] The words that they already know can tell you, “more apple,” or “no kitty,” or “mommy home” or many other meanings that they are learning to express. By 2 years, children should readily be able to combine a few words together consistently. And phrases like “all done,” or “what’s that?” do not count as two word phrases because children learn those words together as one phrase so they don’t understand that “what’s that?” is really two separate words that they can use in other contexts. Sentence length will continue to grow to 3, 4 and 5 word sentences as children approach 3 years of age. You will also see your toddler begin to use sentences to ask questions (“where my cup?” or “daddy gone?”) or give you or other people directions (“up please” or “go out puppy”), as they continue to learn how to use more complex sentence structures.
Just as their sentences are becoming more complex, toddlers have a more complex way of understanding language. You can tell a young toddler to “go get your milk,” but you can tell an older toddler to “go get your milk and put it on the table.” They are able to better attend to both of the directions that you gave them and not forget what you had asked them as they are on the way to pick up their milk cup. An older two year old will be able to follow 2 or more directions that have nothing to do with each other, like “go get your milk and give your sister a hug.” Older toddlers can also begin to understand notions like under, in between, cold, hot, big, little and other contrasting concepts. Ask your older two year old to show you which ball is big and which is little or ask him to put his book under his chair and see if he knows what you are asking him.
As your son begins to add words to his vocabulary and he starts talking more and more, you sometimes find yourself asking him, “what, sweetie?” When children are first learning words and labels, it is very difficult for them to pronounce them perfectly because they do not yet have the skills to make all of the sounds that they need. There are ten developmental consonant sounds that all children should have by the time that they are 3 years old – B, D, M, P, N, T, H, W, K, and G. Those sounds do not make a lot of words in the English language, however. This is why “star” becomes “tah” and “please” becomes “pee” or “peez.” We do not expect them at 2 years old to say sounds like CH, S, or L. Those sounds take much longer to develop and can sometimes not be seen until kids are 5 or 6. If a complete stranger can understand 50% of what your two year old says or 75% of what your three year old says, then your child has perfectly average pronunciation for his or her age. The only time that you would be concerned is if your three year old still doesn’t have those ten consonant sounds, or if the articulation mistakes are not typical child sound-replacements (e.g. it is very typical for a child to say “tat” instead of “cat” but not typical if they only say “at”).
Parents often hesitate when they are concerned that their child is not communicating the way that she should or if their progress is not steadily improving. Babies or toddlers are never too young for a communication skills assessment if you have any concerns about language, whether it’s how your child is understanding or the amount of words they have or how they are articulating. Talk to your pediatrician if you are worried about your child’s language development at any age, but remember that children develop at very different speeds, especially in language. You are always looking at steady progression of skills. If you are worried about any area of your child’s development, you can call your local early intervention program [link with link below] for a development assessment of your little one. Early intervention is covered by your local health insurance company, and doesn’t require a pediatrician’s referral. You can look up your city or town in the link below to find the early intervention programs in your area.
Kim Bennett, MSed CEIS
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