How your toddler learns to talk

Animation: How Your Toddler Develops Language

Speech and language develop at high-speed during the toddler years. Learn how you can support your talking toddler

6 min read

 Toddler –   Article by 

How Your Toddler Develops Language

Having a toddler is a bit like having a tornado crash through your normally ordered lives. Stuff goes flying and there’s a heck of a lot of noise and movement. As your toddler grows up, it only gets noisier.

In this guide, we’ll look at language development milestones in your toddler (1-3-year-olds) and ways you can help your toddler talk.

To find out about why language development is so important, see our guide to speech and language development in babies.

In a hurry? Jump straight to the animation to learn ways you can help your toddler develop their language skills.

How your toddler develops language

How does my toddler learn to talk?

Your toddler is busy building on the language skills they developed as a baby.

By 18 months, they may use between 6-20 simple words. By two, they may be using 50+ simple words.

They’ll begin to put two words together to make basic sentences, like “carry me”. They might try to sing along with you. Try singing “Twinkle twinkle little…”, pause and see if little one adds in “star”.

Your toddler learns to talk by chattering to themselves when they play. It might not make much sense but they’re having a brilliant time creating their own little world.

Pronouns like “I”, “she” and “it” might be confusing for your toddler. They can be a little too abstract. So, they may say “Baby throw” instead of “I throw”. This skill will come in time, usually when they’re 2-3 years old.

How your toddler develops language

Between 2-3 years, you’ll notice your toddler getting a lot louder. They’re still learning how to change their voice and find the right volume when talking. They’ll also get the hang of the word “no”. This is them asserting their independence.

During this time, your toddler’s vocabulary will increase to about 300 words. They’ll start to form and use simple sentences, like “I go now”. Expect plenty of simple questions, like “what / where / who?”. Your answers are helping to boost their vocabulary and understanding of the world.

How your toddler develops language

With this wider vocabulary by the time they’re three, you should be able to have a simple conversation with your toddler. This might be about what they’re doing now or what they’ve recently done.

Tenses are still tricky for older toddlers. They might tell you they “runned” rather than “ran”. Instead of telling them they got the word wrong, gently answer them with the right tense: “Yes, we ran yesterday”.

All this learning means by the time they’re three, toddlers can probably tell you their full name and maybe even their age.

Toddler language development milestones

By 18 months to 2 years, your toddler might:

  • Understand simple phrases, like “shoes on”.
  • Give a toy to someone if you ask them to.
  • Repeat actions to make you laugh.
  • Use common words, like “food” or “more”.
  • Turn pages in books and point at pictures.
  • Say sentences with 2-4 words.
How your toddler develops language

By 2-3 years, your toddler might:

  • Say their first words (usually around the age of 2).
  • Extend their sentences to 4 and 5 words.
  • Recognise and identify almost all common objects and pictures.
  • Use pronouns (I, me, he, she) and some plurals.
  • Be speaking clearly enough for strangers to understand most words.
  • Chat away to themselves in their own language.
  • Understand a lot more than they can say (now’s a good time to start watching what you’re saying – they’re amazing eavesdroppers!).
  • Understand instructions containing 2 words they understand, like “give your cup to mum”.
  • Join in with songs and nursery rhymes with actions.
How your toddler develops language

At 3 years, your toddler might:

  • Follow instructions with 2 or 3 steps.
  • Talk well enough for strangers to understand most of the time.
  • Hold a conversation using 2-3 sentences.
  • Use a vocabulary of several hundred words, including adjectives like “fast” and “small”.
  • Combine three or more words into a sentence: “What’s mummy doing?”
  • Talk about things that aren’t present.
  • Take an interest in playing with words, by rhyming them.
  • Recognise a few letters.
  • Be understood by unfamiliar adults most of the time.
How your toddler develops language

How can I help my toddler learn to talk?

To encourage and support your toddler learning to talk you can:

  • Tell stories.
  • Read stories and talk about the pictures in the book.
  • Join the library to take out plenty of children’s books. Look for interactive books (e.g. lift-the-flap ones) such as Spot, Little Kiwi and Hairy Maclary.
  • Sing and listen to songs and nursery rhymes.
  • Repeat words they say.
  • Encourage them when they say words or try a new word.
  • Expand what your toddler says. If they say “ball”, you could talk about its shape, size and colour: “yes, what a pretty small blue ball”.
  • Focus on what they’re saying, not how they’re saying it.
  • Talk about what you see wherever you are, whether you’re in the car or at the supermarket.
  • Play with them.
  • Give them plenty of time to speak.
How your toddler develops language

Language development in a bilingual toddler

If your child is being raised in a home where more than one language is spoken, it’s a brilliant opportunity to support and encourage them to be bilingual.

Use the language that you’re most comfortable and familiar with. Your little sponge will soak up the language better, following your example.

Other ways you can help support your child to learn a different language are:

  1. Sing songs with them.
  2. Use words and phrases in both languages in everyday life, to say goodnight or to name food when you’re preparing dinner.
  3. Visit the library and borrow children’s language books.
  4. Label things in your home in both languages. Think chairs, beds and cupboards.
  5. Join a bilingual playgroup.
How your toddler develops language

When should I be worried about my toddler not talking?

Every child hits their development milestones in their own time. So, don’t panic if your toddler isn’t doing what they “should” be doing.

If you’re worried about your toddler’s speech, or they’re not saying any words by 18 months, talk to your doctor or Plunket nurse.

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