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
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As the parent of young toddler, I often get giddy with excitement when I hear my daughter say a new word. Sometimes these new words appear out of nowhere. But, as a speech language pathologist I know better.

A child doesn’t really start talking about of the blue. Typical Speech and language skills develop in a steady, predictable fashion. Development of one skill fosters the development of another. However, keep in mind that each child is unique and may deviate from the typical course of development AND, norms in the early years vary considerably. Yet, when parents are patient, motivated, and understand the natural progression of language development, they are more likely to notice and embrace the improvements.

Understanding and use of gestures generally precedes saying words or develop concurrently.

Before children start saying their first words, they often steadily increase and more consistently do all of the following: produce various sounds, display intentionality, point and gesture and demonstrate understanding of what they see and want. 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 or she may even attempt a back and forth flow of vocal play and babbling that mimics the exchange of a conversation. Children who point and gesture to something they want are intentional in their efforts to communicate and demonstrate some understanding of what they want or need. The ability to understand the meaning of words usually precedes speech production. So, the child who is getting ready to talk, will increasingly and more consistently start intentionally pairing a gesture with a distinct sound to communicate with you. And, these will be the times, when you turn to your partner and say, “Did Suzy just say cookie?”.

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.

Parents can typically expect a child’s first word by 12 months of age. First words may even appear as early as 9 months. Some common first words include: mama, dada, more, done, hi, bye, down, up, no, yeah, mine. Toddlers are more likely to say words that they hear frequently, are meaningful, serve a purpose, and help them to meet their needs or wants.

Sentences don’t occur overnight.

We’ve all heard of a child who reportedly started talking in sentences overnight. While it may seem like it happened out of no where, it’s most likely that the child’s language was quietly brewing under the lid…maybe the little bubbles weren’t noticed until the pot started boiling over.

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.

As I mentioned, by the time your toddler hits the 50 word mark, typically by 18 or even 19 months old, his rate of acquiring new words will grow at an exceptionally fast rate. By 24 months, most toddlers have between 200 to 300 words! This is often a very exciting time for parents. And, as a speech language pathologist, I eagerly await for the child to hit this word spurt because it’s a sign that therapy has been effective.

In addition, to the vocabulary growth his or her word combinations become longer and more sophisticated. Before, your toddler may have only spoken about the here and the now (present events), but now he has enough language and cognitive understanding to talk about absent situations. For instance, he can tell you that he ate cookies and candy at grandma’s when you ask, “What did you do at grandma’s house?” He will also start asking questions to analyze situations (e.g. What? Who? Where? Why?). Before, he may have asked questions, using a rising intonation pattern, “Going to grandma’s?”

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

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