Proper 'Language' begins!
Happy first birthday little one! Along with walking, language is the major achievement of the second year. It is now that all that hard work by babies and caregivers starts to pay off. These are exciting times mamamdadada!
Although babies have been communicating for months using gaze, gestures and sounds, at around twelve months they will use a word that sounds like the ‘real’ word, (perhaps in amongst a long stream of scrumptious baby babbling), and their caregivers will know it definitely means something. Experts term these first deliberate words the beginning of ‘language’ (ta dah! Cue applause). Generally the first words are ones used around the child thousands of times before (maybe the name of the family cat?)
This is broad developmental information, so don’t worry if your child is or isn’t doing what’s outlined in this post - every personality is different and each one of us creates our own individual journey to language. And literally add months to these timelines if your child is learning two languages at once – overall language happens more slowly but the benefits of two languages far outweigh a few more months processing time right now! (More on bilingual language learning here).
Expert Robert E. Owens Jr says for a word to actually be officially called ‘language’ that word:
- needs to sound like the ‘real thing’,
- needs to be used more than once (used consistently), and
- needs to be used in the presence of what it means.
Common first English words are: mama, dada, nana, hi, bye, ta, uh-oh, baby (bubba), no, ball, doggie, cat, duck, car*
Language is hard work
Each time a toddler says a word they are using three different areas of their brain – one to hear, one to understand and one to form the sound of the word with their mouth. Constant experience of language helps these young brains keep forming connections, so it is important that caregivers keep talking to and with the toddler as much as possible.They use one word phrases but their intended meaning is actually the complete sentence – “wassat” translated into adult speak is “Please can you tell me what that is?”
Learning to speak clearly is a major challenge throughout the next few years, because children need to learn how to physically match the sound they make with the words they hear, and this takes lots of practice. There is much experimenting with sounds - toddlers play with pitch within their words more, lilting up at the end, speaking loudly, or softly. Toddlers will use a kiddie version of a word until they can master the correct adult pronunciation (for example ‘doddie’ instead of ‘doggie’).
Toddlers still need their primary caregivers’ consistent attention. Whenever they say a new word they are watching to see what the response is, so they can work out if the word was spoken in the right way, and if it was understood in the way they meant. Just checking in mama, always listening - and now understanding so much too. Caregivers might notice that a toddler looks at their adult first, then makes a gesture (they are still relying heavily on gestures), then says the word, then looks back to make sure they were understood. They now know they need the adult’s attention before they speak. Bravo!
By fifteen months toddlers are usually able to name a few of their favourite toys, pets, family members, and foods. At this age they use their words mainly to talk about or ask for things in the immediate environment, in comparison with later when it becomes more about controlling the environment (hello ‘terrible twos’!)
A phrase like “more juice” shows the toddler knows what that drink is called and understands that someone can have more of it.
The first ‘sensitive period’ for language
The learning that takes place at around 16-18 months is really important, and it links to quickly learning lots more words after 18 months. This is because this little window of time is a ‘sensitive period’ for language learning. There is a difference at this age between what a child knows (their 'receptive language') and what they can say out loud (their 'expressive language').
Keep reading piles of picture books together, listen to audio stories whenever you can, and have focussed conversations with your child many times a day when they are 16-18 months to take advantage of this little ‘language-boost’ window.
By 18 months toddlers understand about fifty words and they’re hoovering as many words into their brain as they can each day. They don’t need new words repeated as many times as before – sometimes they only need to hear a word three or four times and they’ve nailed it. They will forget lots too, don’t worry about this if it happens. All part of the process.
The consonants children learn at 19 months old directly relate to the expressive language they’ll be speaking at 3 years old. (I didn’t make that up, it came from Watt, Wetherby and Shumway, 2006*). Its not rocket science really, as is all on a continuum, but still, fascinating!
It takes a while for toddlers to get to understand their first 100 words, but after that they’re off and away with their language. This is related to them understanding the patterns of the language more fully, and having better control over their speech muscles, along with overall general brain development. So this milestone is not about the child’s age, rather getting them to 100 words is a key step. A big part of the caregiver’s job between 18 and 24 months it is about building the child’s vocabulary, working towards that 100 words.
By their second birthday they might understand 300 words (depending on when they got to that 100 word milestone – and no, adults this is NOT a race). Their comprehension is now deepening, they will start to use two concepts in the same sentence – astonishing really, how brilliant they are - and this is all knowledge that will be essential later when they learn to read and write.
More on this deepening comprehension next in our exploration of language in children two to three years old. Also take a look at how to build listening skills in toddlers and take a listen to the eardrops stories - they're great for this age group.
As a caregiver, you can do so much to help your child with their language, and its helpful to have a basic understanding of how our language develops in the early years. If you are worried about your child’s language development please take them to see your local health provider.
Mā te wā (until next time), Liz xx
Information for the Eardrops blog language series was guided and overseen by Dr Jayne Newbury, Researcher in Child Language (University of Canterbury), with the comprehensive information in Language Development: An Introduction by Robert E. Owens, Jr. (2015). This post was written by Liz Donnelly, creator of Eardrops, audio stories that help develop listening skills and improve everyday language in young children.