Language development in toddlers

Did you know that baby crying is beginning of language development? When babies vocalise they use natural, reflexive vowel sounds, such as crying, cooing and babbling. At around 12 months, this begins to turn into real words.

Talk and sing
In the early years, talking, reading and singing with your baby or toddler will help build beautiful bonds between you – and assist with language development. This is true for monolingual and bilingual families. The more your child is exposed to spoken language the better for their language development, as well as cognitive and social development.

Read and sing to your baby, every day if you can. The more words they hear, the more they will understand and use. Talk about the pictures in books and wonder out loud what might happen next in the story. Songs and music will also help baby to learn and retain words.

First words
Language development is fascinating to witness. At around 12 months, toddlers will start to name the world around them, using simple nouns for everyday objects such as ‘cup’ or body parts like ‘nose’. Your one-year-old might initially use the word ‘dog’ to refer to any four-legged creature.

These simple nouns are followed by verbs such as ‘eat’ or ‘go’ and adjectives like ‘big’ and ‘blue’. Over the next 12 months, these single words become two-word sentences such as ‘mummy car’, ‘me up’ or ‘sock foot’.

It is normal for children to pronounce words differently or leave the ends off words, for example saying ‘bo’ or ‘bot’ instead of ‘bottle’. By two years of age, most toddlers can be understood – at least half of the time.

The more the merrier
The quantity of early exposure has a profound effect on children’s language development. If you can, talk to your baby or toddler all day long. Talk about what you are doing, who is coming to visit later, or why the dog is barking outside. As your toddler learns to talk, give them time to find words for their ideas and really listen when they talk.

When you run out of things to talk about, go and visit friends or family. Hearing more words from a range of different speakers gives children more opportunity to learn. Whether it’s ‘rhyme time’ the local library, your book club, or simply chatting with friends, your toddler will be taking it all in.

Bilingual language development
For children growing up in bilingual families, quantity can also be measured by the number of words that children hear per day in each language. Relatively balanced exposure to the two languages is most likely to promote successful acquisition of both.

While some parents worry that bilingual language development may cause confusion or delays in language development, in fact the opposite is true. Studies show that bilingual children have similar language development as their monolingual peers, in addition to cognitive advantages.

While bilingual toddlers may know fewer words in one language, they typically have the same number of words across both languages as monolingual children. Bilingual toddlers may also engage in ‘code mixing’ (borrowing words from the other language) which is sometimes seen as a sign of confusion. On the contrary, code mixing is common in bilingual communities – it is the path of least resistance and shows a certain level of ingenuity in young learners.

When it comes to cognitive development, bilingual children may be better at understanding other people’s perspective, desires, and intentions. They also seem to excel at tasks that involve switching between activities, adapting information from one context to another, and memory.

In closing, one warning: television viewing has been linked to smaller vocabulary sizes in toddlers. High quality language development depends on high quality social interaction. So turn off the TV or computer and ‘be present’ with your child. Tune into their interests and explore these topics using complex and interesting language – and trust that your child is absorbing more than you know.


  1. Talking with babies and toddlers: how to do it and why
  2. Bilingualism in the Early Years: What the Science Says

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