Once toddlers figure out that everything has a name, they want to label their world.
Your Toddler's Vocabulary
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 his receptive language skills since he heard the sound of your voice when he was in the womb. Now that he's a toddler, he'll devote the first half of his second year to perfecting this receptive language ability, storing up vocabulary and absorbing slippery rules of grammar without saying many words of his own.
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. Words are symbols not only for objects but also for actions, events, emotions, and relationships. Plus, language acquisition demands sponging up the rules of syntax and grammar and figuring out how to apply them.
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.
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.
Developing Motor Skills
Your child will rapidly become more sure-footed between 16 and 18 months. A beginning walker staggers about with hands held high for balance. Gradually, though, he'll begin to feel more comfortable walking with his hands at his sides. By 18 months, he'll smooth out that awkward, wide-legged lurch and start walking more smoothly. He may even pick up the pace and try running. Another new milestone: picking up something and carrying it, made possible by better balance and stronger muscles.
This may be the age when your baby's inner daredevil begins to surface. "Most children can climb stairs in a crawl position by now," says Dr. Sonnen, "and by 18 months, many can climb onto chairs and couches."
Not to worry, though: Your child may be more cautious than she appears. In one recent study, 16-month-olds were given the choice of walking across a narrow wooden board or a wide one. The toddlers had no trouble crossing on the wide boards but wisely stayed off the narrow ones unless the experimenters added a handrail.
From Imitation to Imagination
Your toddler has become a little copycat at your elbow: When you wash the car, she wants to be alongside you with a wet sponge of her own. If her older brother is doing homework, she'll get her own crayons and paper so that she can do her "homework" too. And she's thrilled with miniature shopping carts and play kitchens. At 16 months, your toddler has developed the motor skills and cognitive abilities not only to copy what others do but also to understand that the actions she mimics have meaning.
The Beginning of Make-Believe
One day, though, you'll notice that your toddler goes beyond just imitating the people around him. He might make noises with his toy car as he drives it along the edge of the kitchen floor, bark like a dog as he crawls around your feet, or use dolls to imitate people. He'll put a saucepan on his head and insist it's his new hat, or use a banana as a phone. In other words, he goes beyond imitating what he sees people doing in the here and now to acting on his own.
"Somewhere between 16 and 18 months, toddlers shift from strictly copying others to symbolic play," says Leeds. "This means they have the imagination and cognitive abilities to pretend that an object stands for something else, showing a growth in their thinking."
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."
Fun Facts About Your Baby's Development
What Baby's Doing:
Month 16: Climbs stairs, imitates others, and understands most of what you say
Month 17: Demonstrates memory of people and places, moves to music, and throws a ball
Month 18: Recalls language in books and may protest if you try to skip pages, forms two-word sentences, and pretends an object is something else
Holly Robinson lives with her five children outside of Boston.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, March 2006.
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.