Ask your toddler to bring you her favorite toy, and she'll cheerily oblige. Tell her you're off to the playground, and she'll dash to the front door. Remind her that it's bedtime, and you may provoke an opposite -- but equally definite -- response, as she runs to hide.
By 16 months, it's abundantly clear that your child understands most of what you say, even if her own conversation still relies on gibberish. This ability to grasp spoken language -- a skill experts dub "receptive language" -- is the first crucial step toward the gift of gab. Your baby has been honing her receptive language skills since she first heard the sound of your voice in the womb. Now she'll devote much of her second year to perfecting this receptive language ability, storing up vocabulary, and absorbing the many slippery rules of grammar.
Why does language take so long to learn? It's no small feat to go from a conversational crawl to the linguistic leaps necessary for putting ideas, observations, and emotions into words. Plus language acquisition demands sponging up the rules of syntax and grammar and figuring out how to apply them.
As with most developmental milestones, "there's a wide spectrum of what is considered normal in a toddler's language development," says Greg Sonnen, MD, a pediatrician at Baylor University Medical Center, in Dallas. "Some toddlers may say only two words, while others speak a dozen or more by 16 months. Their articulation skills aren't great, though, and many times a word means something only to Mom and Dad."
The first words your child learns will almost certainly be labels for the people, animals, or other things in his world. He'll learn single words or short phrases, accruing an average of one or two new ones each month. Then, quite suddenly -- typically at 18 months, though it may happen sooner or later -- your toddler will experience what experts call a "language explosion," the bubbling-over point when he's banking as many as 10 new words a day.
Once your child has mastered a few words, he'll start struggling to communicate his thoughts more accurately. At first, he'll do this through inflection. For instance, he may yell, "Cat!" when the cat starts digging in your flowerpot, because he's seen you do the same.