Everything's a Command
Given the egocentric nature of most toddlers, early sentences are often commands, adds Leeds. Your little dictator will yell, "More milk!" or "Find Teddy!" as he tests out his newfound ability to make his every need known. Some words might not be accurate at first -- for instance, your child might call a camel, lion, and zebra at the zoo "doggie" because they all have four legs, fur, and a tail -- but the word order will almost always be correct.
"Listen to the order of the child's words," advises Penelope Leach, PhD, author of Your Baby & Child (Knopf). "She rarely gets this wrong." For instance, if your daughter yells, "See bus," that probably means that she's excited about having seen a bus. But if she calls, "Bus, see!" it most likely means she wants you to come to see the bus. And with that troublesome cat, the little boy will say, "Bad cat!" if he's talking to the cat; if he wants to tell someone else about the cat's misdeeds, he'll say, "Cat bad!"
Why You Should Talk to Your Baby
Not surprisingly, research also demonstrates that children whose parents talk to them from infancy, use a greater variety of words, and consistently respond in positive ways to their efforts to speak are likely to develop the best language skills. Firstborn children usually develop language skills faster than their siblings, too, probably because parents spend more one-on-one time with them, and older brothers and sisters aren't necessarily the best language models.
What, You, Worry?
In any case, you may fret over your child's language development. It's normal for parents to worry. "After all, we all know someone who knew somebody who had a kid who recited Shakespeare at 12 months," says Dr. Sonnen. But rest assured: Even if your toddler seems slower to speak than others, as long as he listens to conversations around him, seems to understand most of what is said, and communicates through facial expressions and body language, he's probably just preparing himself for conversation at his own pace.
"Most kids even out in language skills by preschool," Dr. Sonnen says. After that, you may have trouble being heard over your little one's constant chatter.