Stages of Language Acquisition
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 still aren't great though, and many times a word might only mean something to Mom and Dad."
The first words your child learns will almost certainly be labels -- the nouns for people, animals, or other things he encounters in his world. He'll learn single words or simple phrases at first, accruing an average of one or two new ones each month. Then, quite suddenly -- typically at 18 months, though it may happen a bit 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 and improving his receptive language skills at an even faster pace than before.
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. When he has learned to say "cat," for instance, he may yell, "Cat!" when the cat starts digging in your flowerpot, because he's seen you scold the cat for doing such a bad thing.
Eventually, your toddler will figure out how to string the beads of his ever-growing vocabulary into short sentences, says Stephanie Leeds, PhD, director of education and child studies at Cazenovia College, in New York. Your child won't bother with inessential words like prepositions, articles, or anything else that doesn't have meaning for him. Those will come later. Instead, he will eagerly put together pairs of words that really say something. Now, for example, the toddler who catches the family cat digging in the flowerpot won't say, "You're a bad cat!" but instead, "Bad cat!"
These early toddler sentences are what experts call "telegraphic speech" and usually consist of two words. Despite their brevity, these sentences represent a new level of communication between your child and the world. For instance, he may run to the window and call out, "Daddy home!" when he hears his father's car in the driveway, or yell, "Go swing!" when he sees the playground.