Use Your Words: the toddler language explosion

Toddlers have spent the majority of their lives listening to words and finding optimal ways to communicate their wants and needs. Toddlers quickly discover the power of language, from their first cries to multi-lingual babbling to the selection of key words and phrases that communicate powerful expectations like “MOMMY” and “MINE”. According to Zero to Three, National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, language soars from to 2 to 3 years of age, from 20-200 words for the 2 year old to 1,000 words with appropriate grammar for the 3 year old. Parents can’t wait for their little ones to talk and, when they do, they try to remember the quiet of life before words.

Add a slice of language between actions
Some children talk before their first birthday while others are pointing and using very creative communication cues up until 2. Most toddlers have great receptive language, that is, they understand what is said, follow directions and respond appropriately. Once your child is walking (running and climbing), it’s time to start adding language to the majority of experiences – add words to events and, equally important, expect verbal interaction from your toddler. The ideal language-rich environment is not 100% adult-speak but 50-50 listening and speaking. Not all children will be at the same developmental level, yet all typically developing toddlers have language within them ready to be expressed. Approximations and imperfections are okay.

Toddlerhood requires a shift in parents’ verbal interaction, similar to parents adapting to a new physical and emotional stage. Up until now, it was easy to anticipate your child’s needs. It can also be more “efficient” to keep the action going without slowing down for language. Now, it’s essential to:

Describe events: e.g. it’s time to change your diaper, we’re walking past the big yellow house
Put choices into words: e.g. red cup or blue cup, can you climb to your chair or do you need help?
Play language games: e.g. telephone, familiar songs and rhymes, finish my sentence or say the next word in the story
Slow down – wait for language. Words and language need time to percolate up. Stay “present” maintaining eye contact and physical proximity to let you child know you care what he or she wants to say next.

The language gap
Language in the home matters! Multiple studies show an enormous language gap based on the socio-economic status of families that has lasting impact on learning. Hart & Risley call it the 30 Million Word Gap. Stanford researchers (2013) found that children of lower-income families were 6 months behind by age of 2 leading to greater disparities in kindergarten and elementary school. Parents are critical language role models:

• Ask open-ended questions
• Use rich and varied vocabulary
• Engage and extend children’s language use
• Create authentic real-life, multi-sensory experiences to describe and discuss
• Use language before and after concrete experiences – what happened today; what will happen tomorrow
• Embrace imagination in language – tall tales and exaggerations. E.G., as children begin speaking, they may tell you about the family dog when one doesn’t exist
• Listen!

The power of words
Children quickly learn the power of words – to be heard, to be seen, and to be understood. But language use comes with frustration too, like the first time your child says the magic word, “please”, and the answer is still no (no candy before dinner or no extended bedtime). Language goes hand-in-hand with greater social-emotional skills, increased self expression and self-control. Saying “no” to someone taking your bucket in the sandbox requires the other child to stop and listen too (otherwise might does make right). Learning to express your needs coincides with listening to another’s person’s perspective. So, the power of language is that it opens the door to social interactions and problem solving, patience and postponed gratification.

Which leads us to one of the most powerful uses of language that can come out of the mouths of children – the phrase “I HATE YOU”. Toddlers and preschoolers often feel emotions erupt before they can control them. Toddler’s physical tantrums often become the verbal explosions in preschoolers. It isn’t easy to say what you mean and mean what you say at any age. Part of becoming an effective and responsible language user is learning that words can hurt and sometimes we say things we don’t mean.

Toddlers are growing exponentially. It takes years to figure out how to put thoughts, ideas, strategies and solutions into words. The exciting part is that language and learning are partners for life. And what parents say truly matters now and for years to come.


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