Your Toddler Month by Month : 2–3 Years - Communicating with your Toddler (part 1)

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Your toddler needs to learn to communicate so that he can relate to other people and develop the social and inter-personal skills that are so important for building friendships and being understood. He relies on nonverbal, verbal, and listening skills and in many ways operates at an intuitive level.

“Karl is a real chatter-box. His conversations are a lovely mix of fantasy and reality.”

—“Karl is a real chatter-box. His conversations are a lovely mix of fantasy and reality.”

“Be aware of the power of your body language. When you praise your toddler verbally you need to look and act like you are interested, too!”

Much of what is now referred to as emotional intelligence has its roots in our childhood experience of learning language and communication skills. What we say to our children is important, but so is: our choice of language, tone of voice, how we ask questions, how we listen to their replies, what we hear, how we respond, whether we empathize, and how our body language echoes or contradicts what we are saying.

Being inquisitive

He will begin to converse with you by making comments and asking questions. Take time to talk to him and give him the opportunity to respond.

The art of toddler conversation

Now that your toddler’s memory is so much more developed and he is able to use his imagination to cope with the idea that one thing (such as a doll) can represent another (such as a baby), his language skills will quickly develop and he will be ready to start having conversations.

When we talk, we use words to represent the things we want to talk about, so the word “apple” represents the fruit, even if there is no apple in sight. Your toddler is beginning to understand this and is developing the ability to link the right word to the right object simultaneously. He can remember and talk about things that he can’t see, and his newfound ability to take turns in conversation means that he is getting more used to being able to listen to what you say and then respond to you.

At the age of two, however, your toddler is still unable to hold lots of information in his mind at one time, so his conversations may not follow a logical sequence, and he will probably answer no more than one in three questions, as the following sequence between Aaron, age two-and-a-half, and his daddy, shows:

Daddy “What would you like to do today, Aaron? Would you like to go to the park? Or would you like to play a game?”

Aaron “I play with Daddy.”

Daddy “That’s a nice idea. What game would you like to play, Aaron?”

Aaron “Mommy goed in car.” Aaron has split his focus of attention.

Daddy “Yes, she has gone shopping in the car.”

Your toddler will also begin to realize when he has not understood something, and will start to ask for clarification.

“Aaron, would you like to come to watch me play football?”

Aaron nods and says “Aaron come play.”

Daddy “No, Daddy will play football. Aaron will watch Daddy play.”

Aaron looks puzzled and says “Huh?”

You can help your child understand how to make things clearer by asking him to repeat what he has said.

Daddy “So, Aaron, would you like to come with me?”

Aaron “Yes.”

Daddy “And what are we going to do?”

Aaron, smiling, says “Me watch Daddy play foo’ball.”

Daddy “That’s right, Aaron. You can come and watch.”

Aaron pauses, and then grins and repeats “Me watch Daddy play foo’ball … and me have ice cream.”

Daddy, laughing, says “We’ll see about the ice cream later!”

Aaron “Huh?” He is seeking clarification.

By the time Aaron is three years old, the same conversation will become strikingly different. Instead of saying “me watch” and “Mommy goed” he will probably be able to use “I” correctly and will have a better understanding of how to use words in the past tense. He is very likely to be able to say: “Mommy went shopping, Daddy. In the car,” and “I come and watch you play football.” Toddlers can never have too much conversation time with Mommy, Daddy, or anyone interested enough to talk to them. It is valuable to make special time to talk to your toddler and have a real conversation, rather than talking absentmindedly while doing other things. First thing in the morning, after coming home from work, while eating a meal, or at bedtime: all these are ideal private times for uninterrupted talk.

Learning about feelings

Communication is about body language, too. Every hug, kiss, glance, smile, frown, or laugh sends a clear message to your toddler and tells him how you feel about him, what sort of mood you are in, and what kind of response you are expecting. He probably knows your body language better than you do, but make sure that your nonverbal signals match your words. Having your hands on your hips while saying “well done”, or saying “good boy” with a frown on your face, is likely to confuse your child and send him a mixed message.

Are you in tune with what he is saying to you? Watch his facial expressions and physical stance when he is talking to you. Does his voice match his body language? If his eyes and stance say one thing and his words say another, gently encourage and help him to try to tell you how he feels. Toddlers know the power of eye contact and are able to win over a total stranger at 10 yards in a checkout line, simply by staring and smiling. However, his language skills are not as mature and he will need your help in learning how to translate his mood and feelings into words.

How language develops

How we learn language is not fully understood, although the work of linguistic experts such as Noam Chomsky and Jerome Bruner (see Make language learning fun) plays an important role in our current beliefs and understanding. It can be helpful to know that when your toddler speaks he is actually grappling with four different areas of language development, simultaneously.

These four areas are:

That is a lot for a developing brain to take on board, so it is no wonder that your toddler gets frustrated sometimes. When he is older he will learn his letters, spelling, and grammar, how to use tone of voice appropriately, and how to use language sensitively. But for now he is concentrating on building his memory bank of words so that he has enough words to choose from to be able to communicate at a basic level.

During year 2–3, his language skills will race ahead. First of all, his phrases will lengthen from two words to three or four. Instead of “Daddy work” he might announce at 24 months, “Daddy go work now,” and by 36 months may have progressed to, “Daddy going to work now.” By 30 months he will be able to use the personal pronouns “I,” “me,” and “you” in the correct way. He will probably develop his own shortened version of some words and phrases, often based on the beginnings and endings of words, such as “chocake” for chocolate cake, or “su-ket” for supermarket. (Obviously some words just have too many syllables to be useful!) He will also start to learn how to ask questions, often by simply adding “Why?” to his sentence. Before he might have observed that, “The baby cry.” Now, at 24 months, he is asking you, “Why baby cry?” and by 36 months he might say, “Why baby crying?”

Probably the words with the most impact, however, are your toddler’s understanding of the importance of “Yes” and the overwhelming power of “No.” Over the weeks ahead you will probably hear the words “No” and “Why” more often than you would have thought possible.

  • How to use sounds and how to pronounce words (phonemics).

  • How to understand individual meanings of words and learn to use them in a way that makes sense, such as using plurals or the past tense (semantics).

  • How to combine several words into sentences in a logical order and a meaningful way (syntax).

  • How language is used in different situations and contexts (pragmatics).

Language development—taught or caught?

Until the late 1950s there was a common belief that children learned language on an individual basis, either by hearing and imitating sounds or by interpreting other people’s responses to sounds. The linguistic expert Noam Chomsky believed that this was too simplistic to explain the complex process of learning the meaning, structure, and grammatical rules of language. He pointed out that children as young as three will show awareness of grammatical rules, such as making plurals.

He also pointed out that children show a clear pattern of language development across different cultures and this could not be the case if all language was individually taught. Chomsky believed that we have an inborn ability to learn the rules and meanings of any language from birth, depending on what we are exposed to. He pointed out that all children, whatever their cultural roots, show similar errors at different stages of language development, which are the result of getting used to grammatical structure.

Chomsky’s ideas were developed further by Jerome Bruner in the 1980s. He believed that language results from a combination of innate ability plus exposure to language in our personal environment. Social interaction starts when, as a small baby, your child learns to direct his gaze to where you are looking. By 12–18 months he learns to look at objects not only from his own perspective, but also to move position, to see what you are looking at. Bruner and others argue that this stage connects to language development. This is the point where a child first starts to share meaning with another, as this example shows:

Daddy “Look at the beautiful green bird, Tariq.” Tariq looks, but he can’t see a bird.

Daddy, pointing, says “There, look, on the tree.” Tariq follows the direction of his Daddy’s pointing finger.

Tariq “I see bird! I see green bird, Daddy.” Tariq is saying, if I look where you look, I can share your perspective and understand what you mean.

Sharing the meaning of words and a point of focus is known as “joint attention”. Once a child can manage this he becomes ready and willing to communicate and converse, and will start to develop ways to do so.

I can see it, too!

Once your toddler learns to look where you look, he can begin to learn the meaning of words by both verbal and nonverbal means, such as pointing.

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