Within six months after their first birthday, children have about a dozen words in their speaking vocabulary. Almost all of them name the people or things that interest them -- parents, pets, and their own body parts. They rarely name things that don't move or that aren't used in a game. The number of their spoken words increases slowly up to about eighteen months. At that age, a toddler might still have only twenty words, but he has begun to include some one-word sentences like Go, Eat, Bad, Up, and the all-purpose command, This. But the favourite one-word exclamations are Mine! and No, the most powerful of all. Toddlers seem to enjoy the power of saying No! and delight in trying it out on long-suffering parents.
At this point, children experiment with language, trying out new names or sounds. They might invent their own words for things -- Boo might be a favourite teddy bear. They might repeat words but apply them to the wrong objects, just as a tourist might pick a word out of a travel dictionary and use it in the hope that it suits the situation.
Replacing hard sounds
The clarity of their words starts to improve, but don't expect too much of your child's pronunciation. Some sounds like bah and da are easy to make, but others require a considerable amount of skill. To make the sound l, for example, you have to put the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth, just behind the teeth. For young toddlers, that's still too difficult. They use other sounds instead, typically w, m, or y, so lunch could come out as yunch. Toddlers have similar problems with the sound of r. They cannot make hard consonants like t and g at the beginnings of words, so they simply substitute other ones that are easier to make -- too comes out as doo and goose as doose.
Some consonant combinations, like thr or str, are tough, too, especially at the beginning of words, so toddlers use a different one altogether -- and stream comes out as deem. Consonants also give trouble at the ends of words, so young speakers simply leave them off, as in bai for bike or muh for more.
Trying to correct a child's pronunciation, however, can discourage him from trying, if he learns that his cheerful chatter always meets with a language lesson. The best approach at this age, and through a child's first years, is to model the correct way. If your toddler wants an apple and says appo, respond by saying, "You want an apple? Let's go get an apple." This tells your child you understood her, but also models the right way to say it. Don't hold back the apple and make the child say it "the right way." Your child may just withdraw and be less keen to speak the next time.
Page 1 of 3 -- Discover more great tips for understanding your toddler on page 2.
It's in your child's second year that you will see a difference in how boys and girls learn and use language. Don't be worried if your son doesn't chatter away as much as your daughter did at eighteen months. All babies are different but, on average, girls acquire language much more quickly until about two years of age, when the boys begin to catch up.
A child adds words slowly to his speaking vocabulary in the first eighteen months, about 20 words, but that grows to between 100 and 200 words by his second birthday. Meanwhile, the child's understanding of words races well ahead of his ability to say them. At eighteen months, toddlers understand as many as 50 words. Amazingly, that increases more than twenty times to about 1,200 at two years of age. In these six months, the child also begins to grasp more complex syntax. He can follow a two-step command like "Go get your coat, then open the door." He may no longer need you to point to the coat in order to understand. If you say, "Show me the dog" while reading a picture book, he can point to it. He also begins to understand the idea of putting things in categories. He begins to realize that the word dog applies to the picture in the book, to the family pet, and to the animal across the street.
As the child's vocabulary of words grows, two styles of learning begin to emerge. Some children concentrate on building up their bank of names for things, up to 50 words; others quickly pick up words that express emotions or desires, such as Up for Pick me up and Want for I want it. It's an individual preference, as far as researchers can tell, and not an indicator of a child's intelligence or language ability.
By the second birthday, a child can usually compose two-word questions like What's that? or sentences like All gone or demands like Me cookie and Go car. Between two and two-and-a-half, children start using modifier words like possessives and adjectives. They refer to the big car or my bear.
The age of your child is a rough guide to the length of sentences he's capable of uttering. At the age of one, children use one-word sentences, at two years of age, two-word sentences, and so on up to the age of five or six. It's true that children pick up language at their own speed, but if your child isn't using 5 to 10 words by the age of two, or if he isn't making two-word sentences by the age of three, it's worth discussing your concerns with your doctor. Hearing problems are the most common reason for language difficulties. Or the child may simply be having a problem pronouncing words clearly enough for you to recognize. Whatever the trouble, it is always better to find out early enough to help.
When children start using two-word sentences, they've begun to learn syntax, that part of grammar that applies to arranging words in meaningful sentences. The amazing thing is that they get it right. When they put more and juice together, they say more juice, not juice more. Researchers say your child is not just copying you, but he has figured out the pattern for himself. He changes the order of words only if he wants to change the meaning. If he's angry at the cat, he might say Bad cat. But if he wants to tell you that the cat is misbehaving, he says Cat bad. It represents a sophisticated understanding of the patterns of language, an understanding that sometimes leads to the misapplication of a "rule." We usually make plurals by adding the letter s, so it makes sense to the toddler to say mans for men or to call one leg of a pair of pantyhose a pantyho. We indicate an action took place in the past by adding -ed to the end of the word, so why not say I goed up? It takes some years to understand that language has almost as many exceptions as it has rules.
You can help your child figure out the rules the same way you help her learn how to pronounce words. Find a natural way to repeat her message back to her as part of the conversation and provide a model of the right way. When she tells you, "I goed up," reply by saying, "Oh! you went up! Aren't you a big girl!" Don't constantly point out the mistakes. Children learn very early to be self-conscious if they are corrected too often, and they may stop trying.
Teaching language effectively
The children who use their language well come from homes where language is an important part of family times, such as supper together, and social times. Talk about what you're doing as you do it together. If you open a box say, "See how this opens," as you demonstrate the action. When you lift your toddler into his highchair say, "Up we go!" Describe actions and objects as you are using them: "Let's put the red block on top of the blue block and move the green ones to the back."
Remember that, even if your child can understand you, it's not always easy for him to understand strangers, and vice versa. Don't hesitate to repeat another person's words to help your toddler sort out what she's saying. You may also have to interpret your child's words to the stranger.
Reading is one of the best ways to involve your child in language. Start reading to him as early as possible. Choose picture books that interest him and read him the story. If the pictures stimulate his interest, talk about the details or ask him to tell you about what he sees -- the pictures are usually created to convey much more than the words alone.