This post in our language series looks at children between two and three years old - our little language 'whizz-kids'!
The ‘toddler’ phase of language development is from 12 months right through to 36 months, so your child might be doing some of what’s being discussed in this post before (or after) they turn two. There can be as much as two year's variation in language acquisition, because factors like individual learning styles and birth order have a big influence (for example firstborns have a definite advantage because they get more adult one-on-one conversations). A child might seem delayed in their language because they don’t say much out loud, but could actually have a deep understanding of the language around them - advanced ‘receptive language’ - while others have advanced ‘expressive language’, meaning they say a lot of words, but they may not comprehend as much. Each child’s journey to language fluency is unique and gradual, moving from knowing what something is, learning what it’s called, then learning to speak about it in a variety of contexts. Clever whizz-kids!
The amazing two year old
The two year old has usually mastered physical feats like standing on tiptoe, standing on one foot while holding onto something, and jumping. Although they are still climbing the mountain towards language fluency, they can now truly engage in conversations. Quickly moving from using mostly one or two word sentences to longer phrases, and progressing from simply labelling things in the environment to more general language, during this year children start making requests (or commands!), questioning (Why?), protesting (No!), saying common greetings, and expressing how they feel (“I’m tired”). Gestures are still relied on but now they’re starting to be accompanied more often by words.
Two year olds might be able to say 100-300 words and will likely understand many more, making full use of their growing 'working memory' (our short term high speed memory files). They use simplified versions of words ('nana' instead of 'banana'), switch out the beginning letters ('tar' instead of 'car') and can sometimes seem like they're stuttering - language is landing so fast during the next few years that the brain gets ahead of the mouth sometimes (especially when the child is tired or excited).
It’s interesting to note that there are differences depending on what language is being acquired – children learning Mandarin have an average expressive vocabulary of 550 words by around two!*
Before this stage, the child’s language was all about the ‘here and now’, using objects and daily routines to make sense of the world. However children now start to have a deeper understanding of language during this year, you can tell because they bring in sentences that have more than one idea in them. The example that expert Robert E. Owens Jr gives in his book Language Development: An Introduction is “Mummy cookies hot?” This sentence means “can I have a cookie Mum?” and “are the cookies hot Mum?” Phrases like this show the child has an ability to plan and execute a multiple step process towards a goal (i.e. to get the biscuit!)
As discussed in our first post in this series, learning language uses three areas of the brain. The child is actively involved, constantly listening to the language in the home to understand the words and work out the correct way to use them. Children scan for the endings of words before the beginnings. They learn that various sounds that might sound similar are actually different (like ‘t’ and ‘d’ on the ends of words). They look for patterns like this and now they also understand that new information can be found outside of the actual words a person is saying, so they closely follow these cues too (for example volume, pitch and intonation).
Learning language actually involves taking a lot of risks in trying new words (and making a lot of mistakes) so it is important to praise children for their efforts, not their results. They need lots of free play time too to process everything they’re learning (after all, ‘play is child’s work’). Children are actively trying to connect all the dots and it can be frustrating for them at times. Although they can ask for help when they need it, this is a notorious period for tantrums that occur out of sheer frustration (let’s take an understanding parent-to-parent collective sigh at this point. And breathe…)
Child Directed Speech
Without really being aware of it, caregivers move from the ‘Infant Directed Speech’ techniques discussed in the baby language posts to a subtly different style, one that quietly and consistently extends the child’s knowledge. An adult might say half the sentence and pause so the child can finish it (this builds vocabulary), or repeat what was said - especially helpful when the child has the words in the wrong order because the adult can correct this. They also repeat what the child has said in order to make sure that they understand; this is ‘active listening’. The adults still exaggerate their pitch and tones, and interestingly, use very short sentences, even shorter than when the child was a baby, which works well for the toddler. The adult is constantly taking cues from the child and will simplify the language even further if they’re not understood. Even kids as young as four will simplify their language for younger children.
Language Learning Strategies
In this later toddler phase, children are using strategies to help their learning, like putting words into categories ('things I eat'), and memorizing groups of words as if they're one ('seeyabye'). Children are also imitating some of what they hear and constantly monitoring all responses they get from the adults around them to work out if they said something the right way.
During this year children are learning many words and they might know 900 by the time they are three! Once they turn three they enter the ‘preschool’ phase of language, and we look into this stage in weeks to come. 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 do take them to see your local health provider.
Mā te wā (until next time),
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.
* This fascinating fact from here