Are You Underestimating Your Toddler When It Comes to Learning Language?

Parents' low expectations for their toddler's language development may later cause them problems in school.

Photo: Oksana Kuzmina/Shutterstock

As a mom of a toddler, I found this especially interesting: a new Save the Children poll revealed parents are underestimating their children's ability to learn language. The survey said half of us think our kids will know 100 words by their third birthday; and this is all well and good, except it's recommended kids know about 300 words by that milestone.

But that's what preschool is for, right? Well, it turns out the reason parents' low expectations matter is that, according to the Independent, we are laying the groundwork for learning for the rest of our children's lives now.

As a paper by 13 leading scientists from Oxford, Cambridge, and University College London (UCL) points out, "A child's pre-school years form a critical opportunity for the brain to develop key skills like speech and language. Our research shows failure to develop adequate language skills leaves children struggling to learn in the classroom."

So basically, if we aren't fostering language development at home, before kids start preschool, those children are already behind.

Torsten Baldeweg, professor of Neuroscience and Child Health at UCL, elaborates, "We know that if these connections are not formed they, to variable degrees, will suffer longer term consequences to their physical, cognitive, but also emotional development.... Much more must be done to boost children's early development."

It's a lot of pressure to think we have the power to shape our children's futures before they ever set foot in a classroom. But the effects of what kids learn at home are real. In the U.K., it's estimated six kids in every preschool class are struggling. I have to believe this number would translate across the pond to our classrooms.

Save the Children recommends simply talking to kids, singing with them, and playing games to help develop their language. And after determining that 61 percent of parents feel school is the most important period for a child's learning, the organization stresses parents shouldn't wait for school to start fostering these skills.

Gareth Jenkins, director of UK Poverty for Save the Children, said it best: "Toddlers' brains are like sponges, absorbing knowledge and making new connections faster than any other time in life. We've got to challenge the misconception that learning can wait for school as, if a child starts their first day at school behind, they tend to stay behind."

Excuse me while I go read a book to my 2-year-old!

In all seriousness, now that I'm raising a third toddler, I think the best thing you can do to foster language development is speak to your child like any other person, not like a baby. Your child mimics what she hears, and the more you engage her in conversation, the more words she'll learn, and start to use.

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Follow her on Twitter (@Spitupnsuburbs), where she chronicles her love of exercising and drinking coffee, but never simultaneously.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles