All parents watch very closely for possible signs of delay or a problem with their children.
We worry too much, “google” even more and get buried in the amount of information out there.
I’ve come to put stop to it today. Here you can find a comprehensive guide to toddler language development based on thorough scientific research (with resources).
Learn to recognize the typical toddler language milestones in 5 minutes so you never have to wonder again!
This article serves for informational purposes only. There are some children who develop language faster or slower than others, both perfectly normal. Some children might be simply focused on another area of their development, such as motor skills. I will however briefly point out symptoms of possible language difficulties when seeking a help of a professional is recommended.
Toddler Language Development by Age
12 – 18 months
It is amazing to watch a baby turn from an environment-observing infant into a demanding and independence-seeking toddler. It seems like it happens overnight!
At 12 months a child can understand approximately 50 words and around the same time mom and dad can hear the long-awaited first word. This timeline is highly individual.
Read more articles about toddlers here:
- Toddler Eating Schedule: A Straightforward Guide to How Often and How Much
- Toddler Toys for Boys You’ll Totally Want to Play With Too
- Tips and Tricks for Reading with Toddlers
- Toddler Schedule: A Real Life Example [plus tips for creating your own]
12-18 months old
- By 18 months, your toddler understands 100-150 words
- Says about 50 words, mostly nouns
- Follows one-step commands, such as “wave bye-bye”
- Points to a few body parts correctly
- Sits and listens attentively for a short period of time
- Names objects on requests (in books for example)
- Uses words in different contexts, for instance, a car outside, toy car or car in the picture
- Babbles but with correct intonation. Her babbling resembles adult speech
- Attempts to have conversations by simple words, babbling, pointing, and body language
- Gives objects if asked to do so
A toddler of this age is very active and is able to produce a variety of words.
In addition, she understands most of your conversations and books you usually read to her. So be aware when you intend to have an adult conversation in front of your child!
Encourage language development by asking a lot of questions and making conversations about your child’s interests.
Does your little one love trains? Get creative and on top of getting different kinds of books about trains, make some simple train-related art together, take a trip to a railroad museum or maybe even take a train ride just for fun. Supporting your child’s curiosity is a good way to encourage her love of learning.
When asking questions, make sure you use open-ended questions that allow room for conversation.
Instead of asking “Is that a pear?” ask “What’s that?” If you want to add to your child’s answer, repeat what she said and continue with more ideas. If she answers “Sweet”, go ahead and say “Your pear is sweet. Sweet and juicy. It has a soft texture to it.”
Even if she doesn’t answer at all, help her out by answering yourself. One day she will surprise you with how many words she can say all of a sudden.
Correcting your toddler’s speech
It is important for parents not to correct the child’s pronunciation directly. If your toddler says “wed” instead of “red” while pointing at a red flower, just repeat the word with the right pronunciation. Say “The flower is red” and let it be. She will eventually learn to say the words correctly.
If a parent constantly pushes a child to say the words over and over again to fix mispronunciation, it is counterproductive for language acquisition. The child might feel pressured and even ashamed and hold back in her speech.
In addition, certain letters are really hard to pronounce for a toddler and they need some extra time to be perfected. For instance sounds of “l” and “r” may not sound adult-like all the way until 6 years old.
- Understands approximately 200 words and learns meanings of new words rapidly
- Says on average from 50 to 170 words
- Names most common objects
- Follows two-step commands such as “pick up the ball and bring it to me”
- Learns the structure of language, e.g. how to construct questions, even though is not able to actively use it yet
- Starts to use action words in addition to nouns, such as run, walk, dance
- Imitates expressions such as “oh-oh”
- Starts to use pronouns such as “me” and “mine”
- Refers to self by name
- Begins to produce simple two-word sentences such as “more juice” or “read book”
- Is able to name family members
- Begins to ask her first questions, such as “What’s that?”
- Begins to use more specific names instead of general ones, for instance, “dump truck” instead of ”truck”
- Girls typically develop language earlier than boys, who will catch up soon however
Language delay: Signs to look for in your toddler
If by eighteen months your toddler doesn’t seem to comprehend many words or produce any, speak to your primary physician first. She might recommend you for further evaluation if she thinks it is necessary.
Even if your child might be showing some of the behaviors from this following list, it doesn’t mean there is a real problem behind it. So there is no need to panic. But ruling out difficulties early on is beneficial.
By eighteen months, your toddler¹:
- Avoids looking you in the eye
- Doesn’t comprehend language spoken to him
- Doesn’t say at least 6 words
- Doesn’t point to at least one body part when asked to do so
- Doesn’t babble very often
- Doesn’t respond to whispering
- Doesn’t imitate hand signs such as waving goodbye
- Communication efforts lack emotional expressions
- Isn’t able to communicate his needs by gestures or pointing
If your toddler falls into several of these categories. talk to your child’s doctor.
24-months to 3 years old
After your toddler celebrates her second birthday, expect her vocabulary to grow at tremendous speed.
She will learn new words every day. By the time she is 3 years old, she will know and use around 900+ words!
Your toddler’s speech will become clearer and many people outside the family will be able to understand her.
The way she plays also changes. She is learning to sort shapes and colors, completing puzzles without help; she enters the imaginary world of make-believe play and much more.
- 80% of your toddler’s speech is intelligible by 3 years of age (It means people outside the family can understand what he is saying)
- Uses 3-4 word sentences often
- Has a word for almost everything
- Able to ask short questions such as “Where car?”
- Uses “and” between two objects “mommy and me”
- Says approximately 900 words
- Answers questions with “yes” and “no”
- Asks question “What happened?”
- Starts to ask “Why?” and the “what“ “when” “where” type questions
- Understands “now” “soon” and “later”
- Starts using numbers in sentence “two kitty”
- Self-talk accompanies a lot of activities
- Describes actions in story books
Helping your toddler’s language development
There are several things parents can do on a daily basis to aid children’s language acquisition. Some of them we do quite naturally, others we have to learn and get used to doing often.
Here is what you can do:
- Talk to your toddler A LOT. Describe activities you are doing, places you are visiting and things you see around. For example, while at the playground, point to familiar objects and name them often (bird, tree, swing, slide, airplane,…)
- Use clear, simple speech when talking to your toddler so he can easily imitate you.
- Expand on your toddler’s speech. If he says “bird”, keep the conversation going by adding “Yes, you see a bird. The bird is flying. It is flying up high, isn’t it?”
- Read often to your child. Talk about the pictures and let your child explore each page as much as he likes.
- Exaggerate letters and sounds around you. If you are playing with bubbles, say “b-b-b”. While playing with cars make an engine sound “rrr–rrr–rrr”.
- If you can’t understand what your toddler says, ask him to repeat it. It teaches him that what he says matter.
- Keep introducing new words to your toddler every day by reading books. Visit a library and check out different books. Let your toddler point to pictures and name them. Introduce synonyms to different words, such as daddy, dad, father, etc. I included a list of popular toddler books below.
- Talk about colors, not only while playing. While you are at the grocery store, on the playground, etc.
- Introduce numbers and counting. While getting ready for a bath count your toddler’s toes and fingers. Count peas on his tray while eating a snack, etc.
- Ask your little one a lot of questions. Use open-ended questions, so he can use more words to answer you.
- Use opposites while playing or reading. “The plane goes up” and “Now the plane goes down”. “The dog is big” and “The cat is little”.
- Surround your toddler with print and letters– books, magazines, alphabet puzzles, magnetic letters, etc. Choose a letter of the day and pronounce it often and make games around it. Make funny sentences such as “Funny Frog From Finland” and let your child repeat after you.
- Have your child’s name hanging on the wall in his room or on the refrigerator. Say the letters to him phonetically to encourage correct pronunciation.
- Keep singing nursery rhymes and songs that are accompanied by hand movement such as Itsy Bitsy Spider, If you’re happy and you know it, Where’s Thumbkin?, The Wheels on the Bus, etc.
Here is a list of toddler books that your little one will enjoy reading over and over again. They are interesting and challenging enough to get his attention (at least for a brief moment). We all know how busy toddlers get!
If your child cannot sit still for a book to be read to him, choose to read before bed. When he is tired from the day and ready to snooze off. Dim the lights; snuggle together in a rocking chair or on the couch and read away.
Or choose to read right when he wakes up from a nap or in the morning. Some children are very calm after getting up and might enjoy some extra wrapped-up-in-a-warm-blanket-reading-time with you.
- The Itsy Bitsy Spider by Iza Trapani. We adore this book. It has beautiful illustrations and the famous song goes beyond the waterspout. You can choose to sing or read the book and don’t forget to use hand motions!
- Ten, Nine, Eight is a simple book perfect for reading before bed. The backward-countdown rhymes soothe your toddler into a good night sleep.
- Pete the Cat is a fun story book that can be sung too. Kids learn about different colors in a fun way. And also receive a lesson that all messes can be cleaned up 😉
- All Things Bright and Beautiful is an old Christian hymn that we enjoy reading very much. It is rhymed with beautiful pictures on each page. It is a quick read but doesn’t be surprised if your toddler will want to hear it over and over again.
- We’re going on a bear hunt is an amazing book that teaches your toddler about different space concepts (under, over, up, down etc.) in a very engaging way.
- Whoever You Are is colorful book introducing your toddler to many different cultures around the world. Great for raising future world citizens!
- If you give a mouse a cookie is a classic book with beautiful illustrations. Its simple story is rather intriguing and chances are your toddler will ask for a cookie to go with it!
- The tooth book is a funny one that helps motivate your toddler to take care of her teeth. It is great for those times when a new tooth is growing and is causing a lot of pain to your little one.
- I got two dogs is a perfect book for families with a pet dog. It comes with a CD and can be sung too. Your toddler will definitely enjoy singing along! We just can’t get enough of this one!
- Five little ducks is a classic that has to be a part of every toddler’s library. It is a catchy song that helps develop number skills as well.
- The very hungry caterpillar is a classic that every toddler will enjoy reading.
Discover even a longer toddler book list in my other article Toddler Books: The Ultimate List Based on Typical Toddlers’ Interests.
And if you found ideas in this article useful, share it with your friends!
This article serves for educational purposes only. If you are concerned about your child’s language or speech development, talk to your physician.
¹Caroline J. Blakemore and Barbara Weston Ramirez: Baby read-aloud basics fun and interactive ways to help your little one discover the world of words. New York : AMACOM, c2006. 246 p. ISBN 9780814473580
Segal, Marilyn M. Your child at play Birth to one year: discovering the senses and learning about the world. New York : Newmarket Press, c1998. 342p. ISBN 9781557043306.