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Language Milestones

Girl pouting

When your baby turned 1, she probably knew a few words already: some version of "mama" or "daddy" (or both) and maybe a word or two to designate other objects important in her day-to-day life, like a cat, dog, bottle, cracker, and the names of her siblings or caregiver. By the end of the second year, your baby's handful of words will have blossomed into somewhere between 100 and 200.

What characterizes language development between 12 and 24 months? During the first half of the second year, your child will gradually acquire more words. In addition to objects and people in his world, he'll learn the words for important actions: "up" and "down" (as in "Pick me up" and "Put me down"). The words your baby learns reflect both his experience and his temperament. Active babies, research shows, are more likely to add verbs to their repertoire than are more passive infants.

Then, somewhere around 18 months, there is an explosion of new language development. New words are acquired more rapidly now than at any other time in your baby's young life. This acceleration in language learning is accompanied by another new development: the use of combinations of words to convey a message. Now, instead of simply demanding "Milk!" your baby is likely to ask for "Milk, Daddy!" or to reject the toasted bagel you give her with the words "No, hot," instead of tossing it to the floor. By about 24 months of age, most kids will commonly speak two- and three-word sentences, though there is a wide range in normal language development.

In a sense, your child has two vocabularies at this point. You may hear your pediatrician refer to these as "receptive" and "expressive" language. Receptive vocabulary refers to the set of words your child can understand when he hears them spoken by others. Expressive vocabulary refers to the words he can actually produce himself and use to communicate. For instance, although your child cannot say, "Come to the grocery store with me," he will probably understand what you mean when you invite him to do so. Your child's responses when you talk to him should indicate that he understands much of what you are saying to him.

Your child will also employ her own set of strategies as she begins to communicate verbally. To help you make the most of your parent-child interactions, here's a rundown of the language principles used by most 1-year-olds.

  • One-year-olds use a lot of linguistic shorthand. Children at this age often use one word to stand for a whole sentence. "Juice," for example, can mean any number of things, including-but not limited to-"I'd like some more juice now, please," or "Oh, no, I spilled my juice on the floor!" Situational cues -- the empty glass or the puddle on the linoleum -- are important. In your child's earliest sentences, only the words necessary to convey meaning are included. For example, "Daddy ball" or "Daddy have" can mean "Daddy has my ball, and I want it back now."
  • The 1-year-old's language doesn't develop at a steady rate. Words are acquired in bursts, with periods of slower development in between. The acceleration of language learning at around 18 months is an example of this.
  • Language is only one thing being learned now. Language use is an important feature of the second year, but your child is making great strides during this time in motor, social, and cognitive development, too. At times, his linguistic progress may slow down as it takes a backseat to new developments in these other areas.
  • Your child may take a linguistic step backward now and then, but it's nothing to worry about. She may lapse into earlier stages of language development in terms of either the words that she uses or the clarity with which she produces these words -- using baby talk, for instance, when she has already abandoned it. This is especially likely to happen after an illness or other upset. She should soon be moving forward again in this area and will more than make up for the lost time.

Have Fun With Baby's Development

Giving commands
Both receptive language and cognitive and social skills come into play when you ask your child to follow simple directions. By about 18 months, he should be able to follow a one-step direction ("Pick up your bear"). Toward their second birthday, most kids can follow two directions. To observe your child's progress, you might say, "Pick up your truck and put it in the toy basket." When he has followed these instructions, give him two more: "Close the lid and put your blanket on top." As with all attempts to assess your child, don't let him think you're testing him. Make a game out of it, or observe him in everyday situations.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.