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

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Bilingual families

Children under the age of three who are raised in a bilingual environment are believed to learn both languages simultaneously, with no detriment to developing language skills. The easiest way to support language-learning is to be consistent in approach, perhaps by adopting a “one parent/one language” approach at home or by agreeing that one language will be spoken at home, and another outside the home. When conversations consist of mixed languages, a child may have difficulty figuring out which vocabulary applies to which language. Bilingual children appear to develop greater dexterity in their language-learning than those with a single language, once at school. This may be because they pay greater attention to language, which helps when developing literacy skills later.

Learning to listen

Listening to your toddler is about more than hearing the words that he says. He needs to know that you are on his wavelength, and that you are really engaging with how he feels and what he needs to tell you.

Make eye contact, touch his head or cheek while he speaks; smile or look quizzical. Use your face and your body to show him that you understand and are interested. By watching your reactions he, too, will learn how to empathize when people talk. You are helping him learn how to read people’s faces and develop understanding.

Top tips for effective listening:
  • Use all the patience you can muster to let your toddler tell it his way.

  • Echo back what he has said to show that you have heard and understood him.

  • Don’t interrupt him to correct his speech.

  • Ask questions to encourage him to repeat and clarify what he’s saying.

  • Look enthusiastic. Your interest will help to boost his self-esteem.

  • Praise him for being so clever at talking.

Make language learning fun

Keep up the songs, rhymes, and word games that you have been enjoying with your toddler. Don’t worry that you are out of tune or haven’t sung a note since you left school. Your toddler won’t mind. He just loves the sounds of the words and the actions. Each repetition helps lay down his word memories even more. Also let him lead when it comes to learning letters and numbers. He may enjoy learning about the sounds of the letters, but don’t force the situation. There is plenty of time for spelling, grammar, and counting when he is a little older.

Making up stories and reading storybooks with your child is an excellent way of accelerating his language learning as well as ensuring that he is involved and enjoying the experience. If he has a favorite story (and toddlers are often word perfect with favorite books), pause while you are reading and see whether he can remember the missing word, or tell you what comes next. Be tolerant and full of praise, not critical, as he learns—this way he will progress quickly and enjoy the experience.

How to Talk with your Toddler

Communicating with your toddler at this age is all about encouraging him to talk. He probably knows between 200-500 words, but won’t be able to use them all comfortably. The more he talks to you and others, the more fluent and confident he will become.

“The more fun you make conversations, the more language he will remember, and the greater the level of ‘feel-good’ hormones in his brain.”

There is a fine line at this age between encouraging your toddler to take the lead and controlling the outcome of the conversation, but he will benefit if you can help him expand his language skills.

Always curious

The world is full of new discoveries for your toddler. Encourage her to tell you what she can see.

  • Keep up the commentary—he still needs you to describe and reflect on what he is doing, so that he learns to understand and think about his actions, and so that he increases his sense of himself in action. So, for example, you might say, “You are pedaling your tricycle very fast, so that you can get to the park quickly.”

  • Keep things simple—be as clear as possible when you describe something to your toddler or give him a direction, so that he understands what is expected and what he is experiencing. “You slid down the slide really fast, Nathan. Well done.”

  • Encourage description—increase his vocabulary by building on the information he gives you. Describe everything in more detail. “Your tummy felt whizzy did it, darling? It sounds as if you went very fast and it was very exciting. I bet you landed on your bottom with a bump!”

  • Ask questions—about things he knows, to stimulate his language skills; but don’t overwhelm him. “Closed” questions invite a specific answer: “Did you make new friends?” “Open” questions encourage him to talk: “What did you like playing best?” A mix of questions allows him to express himself and gives you useful information, too.

  • Use past, present, and future— your child now has a much better sense of time, but may still get confused about the difference between today, yesterday, and tomorrow. By including his own experiences in your narrative and your questions, he will pick up the idea more quickly. “If you want, we can go to the park again tomorrow; or we can go swimming with Peter, like we did last week. Which would you prefer? Going to the park or swimming with Peter?”

  • Mention relationships—your toddler knows that he has a mommy, a daddy, and possibly some siblings and grandparents, but talking about how you are all related to each other, and how aunts, uncles, and cousins fit in too, will help to cement his understanding of “family” and his sense of belonging. “We can take your cousins George and Michael, too, if you want. I think Aunt Mary can take us in their car.”

  • Help him understand his feelings—give him the words he needs to describe the way he feels. “You sound very happy, Kyle, and very excited. Are those nice feelings? I think so, too.”

  • Keep conversations simple—limit each exchange to one or two pieces of information. Any more and your toddler will not remember and may become confused. Don’t expect him to give a logical response to every question.

Who’s leading the conversation?

Child-led conversation, like child-led play, will help increase your toddler’s self-confidence because he will feel valued and truly listened to. Parent-led conversation, on the other hand, tends to control or instruct. The child’s motive becomes the need to please the adult rather than exploring and learning for himself. There is a time and a place for both styles of conversation, but the following examples show two very different approaches and outcomes during play—

Maggie is playing with her aunt Linda, who is showing her how to do a jigsaw puzzle:

“Now then, let’s find all the pieces of the outside edge first. No, that’s not edge, that’s the middle. Here you are, Maggie, try this piece… No, no, other way up. No, no, the straight line has to match, do you see? Here—let me show you. There. Now then, can you see a piece with sky on it? Yes, it’s a lovely sunflower, darling, but no, that piece won’t fit. We need sky first… Careful, careful—you’re knocking the pieces on the floor. Where are you going, sweetheart? Yes, Mommy is in the other room…”

Maggie toddles off since she can do nothing right and the fun has gone out of her jigsaw. Aunt Linda hardly notices, since she has become so intent on getting the outside edge of the puzzle in place.

Later, Maggie sits down with her Uncle Keith to do the same task, but he lets her lead the way:

“I hope you’re not expecting me to do anything, Pumpkin! I don’t know how to do jigsaws. You’re going to have to show me. So, what’s this funny shape? A piece of jigsaw, you say? Oh, is it? How exciting. What’s this piece of yellow? Oh, a sunflower, I see. Now where would you like me to put it? Just here. OK. Now then, what happens next? Yes, that’s a pretty piece, too. What are the colors on it? Oh yes—I see, that has some yellow on it, too—aha, and a green stalk—you’re right. What are these funny knobbly bits for? I don’t understand—will you show me? Ah! You are clever, you’ve fit the pieces together and you’ve got a whole sunflower now. Well done, Maggie.”

Maggie is feeling very happy to have her uncle Keith’s attention and she has completed her favorite piece of the puzzle. Her uncle’s approach has worked most effectively because he has helped her direct her own play, while also having fun, even if the puzzle hasn’t been assembled correctly.

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