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Over the next six months your toddler will start to replace her baby “babble” with real words to describe things. Her ability to understand what you say will improve much more quickly and you may be surprised to find how easily she follows basic instructions, too.

“Your toddler may get frustrated at times. Imagine if you did not have full control over your mouth but were expected to speak clearly.”

“Toddlers love to do things again and again. They get great joy from repetition because it reinforces their learning and gives a great sense of satisfaction—especially if it is drawing a response from you, too.”

Although your toddler’s language skills will be improving, there won’t be an overnight transformation and there will be times when it seems impossible to interpret what she is trying to tell you. There may be a gap of 3–4 months after she says her first words before her growing vocabulary takes off. By the time she is 18 months she will know about 20 words and be able to link two words together at a time; this will increase rapidly to between 50–300 words by 21–24 months. Unfortunately, the choice of words may not always make sense to you, which is why this is often known as telegraphic speech. Like an old-fashioned message by telegraph (or modern-day text message), the style is so condensed that you will have to fill in the gaps. However, your toddler will have a clear idea of what she is trying to say, so watch her body language and listen to her tone of voice.

Helping your child

The more you talk to your child, the sooner she will learn the fundamentals of language. It is important to sometimes repeat back to your child what she is saying to reinforce the process of talking. It may feel patronizing, but it is not. Reflecting your child’s style speech back to her by using her phrases and simple adult words, will help her develop an understanding of the to and fro of conversation, and recognize that her words will be responded to by other people. For example, if she points at the cat and says “Loo-, dat!”, reply “Yes, look, it is the cat!”

At other times, by repeating and echoing back the corrected version of her words, you can help your child to become familiar with pronunciation. However, overcorrection may put her under undue pressure to get things right. Trying to force early language development is generally ineffective since a child’s vocal cords and control over the tongue have not yet developed fully. As the voice box (larynx) gradually strengthens along with other motor skills , so she will learn to speak more fluently.

Describe to your toddler what you are doing while you are playing, washing, and dressing: “Shall we wash your hands now?”, “This is your nose,” (touch your child’s nose), “This is my nose,” (touch your nose), “Let’s make it go ‘beep’,” (press your nose and make a “beep” noise; then do the same to your child). The combination of touch and sound will help to remind her of where her nose is and will reinforce the similarity between you. Introduce the idea of textures, sounds, colors, and smells: “The cat’s fur is pretty and soft,” “This is a lovely crunchy apple,” “Have your juice in the red cup”. Although children start to speak at different ages, the general process of development differs very little. Children learn mainly by listening to language and by imitation, rather than via direct instruction.

Communication without words

Until your toddler can express herself through speech, she will use a whole range of other gestures to make her needs known.

Using body language

She is learning to talk, but using her hands and pointing may still be the most comfortable and accurate way your toddler can show you want she wants.

Pointing

Learning to point is an important stage in learning to communicate. For your toddler to decide “That’s what I want” and to reason that “If I point at it you will understand and get it for me” takes immense concentration and skill. Children of this age still want their needs fulfilled immediately, so it is wise to respond to your toddler’s pointing and then use words to reinforce her message. If you try to encourage your child to use the correct words before responding, the resulting stress may stop her memory from absorbing your language lesson.

Showing you

Your toddler will enjoy using her newfound speed and skill to find things and to show you what she wants. Let her explore and physically move around in order to make her own choices, rather than helping her. Imagine how frustrating it would be if you were browsing the shelves in a bookstore, only to find you kept being removed to an armchair before you had reached the section you wanted!

Facial expressions

Children are extremely expressive and you will already know many of your toddler’s mood cues. A simple glance at her face will tell you immediately how she is experiencing something and, more importantly, whether she is happy, worried, or anxious.

Keeping in tune with your toddler’s evolving expressions can be a very useful way of helping her to understand and cope with her feelings. Even if you cannot see or sense an obvious explanation for the feeling you see written on your child’s face—respond to her anyway. Your toddler will be sensing the world in a way that is vastly different to you and without language, so may need some help in learning to interpret her experiences and deal with them.

Cooperating

Children love to mimic; it is a natural instinct that enables them to learn new skills through play and watching others. This evolves gradually into cooperation, and is a useful way for a child to show her understanding without the need for words. Watch out for your child reaching for her spoon to feed herself; offering her foot when you reach for her socks; lifting up her arms when it is time to take off her T-shirt. These are powerful signs that your child is learning to understand, and is gradually developing the skills required to help herself. Give her plenty of encouragement and follow her leads promptly—for example, by putting on her socks rather than ignoring her gesture.

If your child is showing you that she understands what is needed, she is also telling you that she is ready to “have a try.” Whenever you have time, let your child try to do things for herself: such as putting on a shirt, feeding herself, and brushing her teeth. With patience, encouragement, and quite a bit of support, she will soon show you that she has the skills to succeed, and is ready to learn more.

Language activities

Language development at this stage should be about fun, not flash cards. Small children are generally very ready to smile and laugh and love new and silly sounds. The more lighthearted and fun you can make the process of learning for your toddler, the more easily she will be able to grasp new words and ideas.

Rhymes, songs, and word games

Singing songs and making up silly rhymes will teach your toddler about sounds and rhythm; using fingers and toes to tell a story will combine words and action—and can be a fun way to help your child learn the parts of her body.

Traditional nursery rhymes are still used the world over for the simple reason that they work so effectively in helping children enjoy language and learn the sounds of words. Itsy Bitsy Spider, This Little Piggy (went to market), and The Wheels on the Bus (go round and round) are reliable old favorites.

The same is true of songs that combine words and gestures, although your toddler will be following your movements rather than listening to the instructions on the CD or tape at this stage. This is important since it helps children learn the social side of interaction, including making eye contact, sharing smiles, and giving attention; all of which are important for building later friendships and reinforcing natural methods of communication. Your toddler will absolutely love it if you make up word games of your own, especially games that include a sense of anticipation and surprise. These are especially good for encouraging interaction and trust between playmate and child.

Picture books

These can be a lovely way to get your toddler used to recognizing different shapes and textures, as well as learning animal sounds and everyday noises, such as car horns. Picture books play an especially important part in encouraging your toddler to observe and learn new words, sounds, and the context of things. She is too young to be able to imagine ideas and storylines for herself, but will listen enraptured if you tell her a tale—especially if it includes lots of actions and noises.

Bathtime fun

Playing at bathtime is an easy way to get your child washed without her even noticing and encourages her to feel at ease in water, too. If you have more than one child, bathing them with each other is a nice way to enjoy some togetherness—and saves you precious time.

Who is in charge?

By 18 months your toddler will understand simple instructions such as, “Stop”; “No”; “Come here”. As well as basic concepts such as “Time for lunch”; “Bathtime,” and questions such as “Where is teddy bear?” she will also develop the ability to mimic and pick up words that have been overheard. Parents often wonder why children have an uncanny ability to pick up inappropriate swear words at a very early age. This is because they tend to be single syllable words that are used with emotion or emphasis—so they stand out in conversation. It could also be due to the reaction toddlers get when they use them: laughter, shock, and lots of attention (good or bad). Toddlers love to mimic—so now would be a good time to curb your language if you are likely to be embarrassed by your toddler copying you!

Trying to communicate

At this age toddlers do not yet have enough words to make their meaning immediately clear.

Issie, age 18 months, suddenly exclaims, “Big dog!” Issie’s Daddy responds, “Can you see a big dog?” Issie excitedly says, “Big dog!” Daddy, determined, says “Are you thinking about Grandma’s big dog?” Issie, even more excited, says, “Big dog, big dog!” Daddy is none the wiser and will need some nonverbal cues if he is to get to the root of the matter. He has no idea whether Issie is saying, “I want my big toy dog,” “Remember that big dog we saw three days ago”, “I want the book about the dog,” or just “I like the sound of the words ‘big dog’!” While it is important to give your child lots of encouragement with speech, there is not always obvious logic to the words.

Try echoing the mood and the phrase back to your child, ask her to show you what she means, or if she is becoming frustrated, try changing the subject.

Common toddler-speak

Your toddler may omit or change the sounds in words she finds difficult. If this happens, echo the word back correctly, with slight emphasis on the corrected sound. There is no need to ask her to copy or imitate you. She will gradually take it in through experience and exposure to more words. Your toddler may:

  • Drop the first sound from the beginnings or ends of words, especially ones starting or ending in consonants, such as b, d, or t.

  • Swap sounds, such as d and g.

  • Make generalizations and turn nouns into verbs, for example, “I songed,” rather than “I sang a song.”

  • Extend the meaning of words, so that all machines are called “car,” or all animals are called “cat.”

  • Reduce the meaning of words, so that only Daddy is a “man.”

  • Simplify the rules of grammar, so that all plurals have an “s,” even “sheeps”; and all words in the past tense end in “-ed,” so instead of “I ran” she will say “I runned.”

  • Stammer or stutter when trying to get her words out. This, too, is common at this stage, so don’t worry.However, a persistent stutterer may need help from a speech therapist .

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