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Normal language development for toddlers

Written By | May 9, 2014

SILVER SPRING, MD, May 9, 2014  —  Children are constantly learning, and the third year of life – age 2 to 3 – is a time of explosive development, especially in language.

The first year, infants are mostly non-verbal. Parents get delight when the newborn cries start to yield coos and then later, the first attempt at sounds. Perhaps the parent can boast that their child has managed their first handful of words by their first birthday.

However, all the growth that seemed to be stunning can be quickly eclipsed once the second birthday hits and children begin developing their language skills in earnest. By this point children should understand most of what is being said to them.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) a two-year-old’s vocabulary averages about 50 words. Over the course of the next year his vocabulary will increase to around 300 words. So when it seems like your little one is picking up a new word every day, that may be exactly what he is doing.

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Your two-year-old will be trying out new words and phrases and trying to get his mouth around all those sounds he has been hearing for the last two years. Sometimes words will be clear, but often they will be garbled, with clarity developing over time and with practice.

It is important that you let a toddler talk and try to understand what they are saying. When a child feels successful at communicating, it encourages them to keep trying, and this practice is important to language development. Another way children practice their language skills is by playing make-believe with their toys and creating scenarios.

Whether this is a narrative of what is happening between race cars or talking to their dolls, this is just more practice for little minds and mouths.

The average child will learn most of his grammar and vocabulary from listening to what is said around him. This continued development will go on whether you think about it or not, but if you wish to help your child improve their language skills, the AAP says that reading to him is the best way you can, especially if it is incorporated daily.

If you have not already, this is the time to graduate from simple board books with little or no story to the longer picture books since most two-year-olds have the ability to follow a storyline.

Other ways to encourage your child is by playing pretend with them, talking about photos (either family photos or those in books and magazines), talking about their day, and telling them the names of objects that you give them or those that are new.

Also, make sure you encourage them to use words, especially when they start getting frustrated and want to go into a tantrum.

The AAP advises that parents read to their children rather than turning on the TV. Photo by J. Aaron Farr. Click to enlarge.

Do not be surprised when your child begins to parrot you. By repeating the words you say to him, especially with objects, he is not only trying out the sound of the word for themselves, he also is looking for affirmation that he is saying it correctly.

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Do not forget to give him praise and tell him that he has it right when the word comes out, even if it is not flawless English.

Just like everything with your child’s development, resist the urge to compare your child’s development against that of other children. Each child develops at different rates. On top of that, girls tend to develop language skills faster than boys. The amount and type of interaction with adults can also influence how quickly a child picks up new words, and some children are just more outgoing and talkative than others.

The AAP also says that at this stage there is a greater variation in language development than at any other point.

A woman doctor examines a young patient

The Centers for Disease Control list the following as language development milestones that your child should reach by his second birthday:

  • Points to things or pictures when they are named
  • Knows names of familiar people and body parts
  • Says sentences with 2 to 4 words
  • Follows simple instructions
  • Repeats words overheard in conversation
  • Points to things in a book

They advise talking to your doctor if he cannot use two-word phrases, and follow simple instructions by the second birthday.

If you are concerned that your child is having trouble with language talk to your pediatrician first. The AAP says that somewhere between one in ten and one in fifteen children will have either a language comprehension issue or speech delay.

This can come from problems such as hearing trouble, lack of verbal stimulation, or intelligence issue.

Whatever the cause, finding the problem and beginning to remedy it early is key.


Brighid Moret

Brighid is a freelance writer, mother and reader. She holds an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. Find her on Twitter @BrighidMoret, or follow @BigReadsLittleH for the latest children's book reviews.