When Do Toddlers Start Talking?

Setting Expectations: When Do Toddlers Start Talking?

One question, I’m usually asked is:

“When will my toddler start talking?”

Playing the piano by juhansonin, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License



Answers to these questions are never easy because parents are stressed and naturally look forward to the day when their child can express his thoughts, his feelings, and his desires.

In most cases, this change doesn’t happen overnight. Yet, when parents are patient, motivated, and understand the natural progression of language development, they are more likely to notice and embrace the improvements.

“With love and patience, nothing is impossible.” Dr. Daisaku Ikeda

Typical language development usually happens in a somewhat predictable manner. However, please keep in mind that each child is unique and may deviate from the typical course of development.

Understanding words generally precedes saying words.

A language-delayed child or a late talker may first become responsive to communication before initiating dialogue. So, the toddler may follow directions (e.g., “Stop it” or “Come here”), identify pictures, or even use gestures or motions before saying words or verbalizing his intentions.

He may imitate before saying words or phrases on their own.

Toddlers often need to imitate and repeat spoken words and phrases before spontaneously applying them on their own. So don’t be shocked when you notice that your toddler is parroting everything you say. This happens even if he doesn’t understand the words you are using or what you are saying.

First words tend to be context bound.

What in the world does this mean? It means that toddlers may make a liar out of you! Say for instance, Patrick says “dog” for the first time when reading a favorite book. You are pretty excited so when your spouse comes home from work, you declare, “Patrick, can now say, “dog!”. So, you put Patrick to the test, and direct his attention to your dog, Tucker and say, “Patrick, what is Tucker?” Patrick is quiet and blankly stares at you. Besides this being a ridiculous question to ask a young child, it also shows that first words are rooted in certain contexts and situations. Toddlers understand a word based on its specific context. Eventually, the toddler’s understanding grows, and he learns to extend the word to multiple contexts and different situations. Eventually he’ll understand that the dog in the book and your pet Tucker are both dogs. Additionally, a word is a symbol that represents something on its own. A dog barking, a baby crying, or a cat meowing may convey meaning, but these sounds are not symbols, and therefore they are not words.

Sentences don’t occur overnight.

Lastly, it’s not realistic to assume that a child who has not been speaking will start saying phrases or sentences overnight. This can happen, but it is rare. Typically, children need to have a certain number of words in their repertoire before they can start combining words into phrases and sentences. A general rule of thumb is that children have fifty words in their repertoire before combining words. This is because when they get to this fifty-word benchmark, many children then usually have a “word spurt,” and their talking takes off. However, word spurts may not occur with all children. Some children’s language development may follow a more linear pattern, and their vocabulary may grow at a more constant rate regardless of how many words they have in their repertoire.

I hope this post helps not only to gauge your expectations, but also assists in noticing those improvements in your child’s development.

“Rivers know this: There is no hurry. We shall get there.” – A.A. Milne

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