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.
Eventually, your toddler will figure out how to string his ever-growing vocabulary into short sentences, says Stephanie Leeds, PhD, director of education and child studies at Cazenovia College, in upstate New York. Your child won't bother with inessential words like prepositions or articles. Those will come later. Now, for example, the toddler who catches the family cat digging in the flowerpot might say, "Bad cat!"
These early sentences are what experts call "telegraphic speech," and they usually consist of two words. Despite their brevity, these sentences represent a new level of communication between your child and others. 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.
Given the egocentric nature of most toddlers, early sentences are often commands. Your little dictator will yell, "More milk!" or, "Find Teddy!" as he tests his newfound ability to make his every need known. Some words might not be accurate at first -- your child might call a lion or zebra "doggie" because they all have four legs, fur, and a tail -- but the word order will almost always be correct. If your daughter says, "See bus," that probably means she's excited about having seen a bus. But if she calls, "Bus, see," it most likely means she wants you to come see the bus.
Not surprisingly, research demonstrates that children whose parents talk to them from infancy, using a variety of words and responding positively to their efforts to speak, are likely to develop the best language skills. Remember, it's normal for parents to worry about their child's language development. "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 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.
"Somewhere between 16 and 18 months, toddlers shift from copying others to symbolic play," says Stephanie Leeds, PhD, director of education and child studies at Cazenovia College, in upstate New York. "This means they have the imagination and cognitive abilities to pretend an object stands for something else."
Your child may bark like a dog as he crawls around your feet, or use dolls to imitate people. He'll put a bowl on his head and insist it's a new hat, or use a banana as a phone.
Your child's pretend play is a cornerstone for future learning. "Reading and writing are all about symbolic representation," Leeds notes. "So this ability to imagine is an essential developmental step."
Q. Do you know how many words your child can say?
A. We'll be asking you this question at your toddler's next few checkups, so be sure you're paying attention to what's going on -- and what's being said -- at home. By this age, most kids have a vocabulary of 10 to 15 words. And it doesn't matter if only you can understand the words -- we still count them, and so should you!
"The last memory milestone is verbal recall," says Lise Eliot, PhD, author of What's Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life. Children will begin referring to events from memory almost as soon as they can talk, and "verbal recall improves dramatically during the toddler and preschool years." Some children can even describe events from infancy, proving that language is not, as was once believed, a prerequisite for storing memories.
However, emphasizes Dr. Eliot, "although language isn't required to make memories, it does play a key role in making memories last." Once children develop the linguistic skills
to create narratives, they can "place their own personal recollections into a framework of time, place, and causality, ensuring that their memories survive the transition from childhood to later life."
Holly Robinson lives with her five children outside of Boston.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, March 2007.
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.