Baby Talk: Is Your Baby’s Vocabulary Developing Normally?

Support your child's language development with three expert tips to boost baby talk.


Illustration by Karin Soderquist

Carrie Van Dyke was pleased when her oldest child, Noah, now six, began speaking his first words at nine months and simple sentences by the age of two. But Noah’s speedy progression made it all the more concerning when her second-born, Eli, didn’t speak as quickly. “It was hard for him to express how he was feeling, and he would act out in a tantrum or a crying fit,” she recalls. The mother of three from Newmarket, Ont., remembers the relief she felt when Eli started talking at around 18 months. “It was simple words like ‘mama’ and ‘dada’ and ‘dog,’ but we were like, ‘Phew, he can talk!’”

The years between one and three are important for language development, says Dr. Henry Ukpeh, a pediatrician from Trail, B.C. “This is a key time, because it’s one of the fastest periods for brain growth and the acquisition of knowledge and information,” he says.

Whether your little one is talking up a storm or meeting the milestones at a slower pace, here’s how you can support her language development.

1. Increasing Your Baby’s Vocabulary
“Parents are sometimes worried when they hear about a neighbour or a cousin who spoke more quickly, but there’s a huge range in what we call ‘normal,’” says Brie Schindel, a pediatric speech-language pathologist from Lethbridge, Alta.

According to Schindel, kids should know and be able to say a couple of words by 12 months and 10–15 words by 18 months. Their vocabulary should increase to around 50 words by age two, and kids should also be starting to pair two words together (“More please”) and understanding basic questions such as “Want milk?” Schindel adds there should be a rough correlation between age and sentence length—for example, two words at age two, three words at age three. Between these ages, kids should be learning some grammar (for example, putting “ing” endings on words) and showing that they understand more complex concepts and directions.

2. Encouraging Your Baby By Modelling Language
Kids will begin with the words that come most easily to them—especially “B” and “M” sounds, thus “baba” and “mama” (“P” is the other earliest sound). Right from the get-go, Schindel suggests helping kids establish a connection between a word and its meaning. For example, when you offer a glass of milk, say “Here’s your milk, enjoy your milk,” and so on, and then wait for a response from your child to show she understands.

Between the ages of one and two, parents can encourage children by imitating their sounds and actions—something that kids will usually reciprocate. Doing this also helps teach kids to take turns when communicating. After age two, Schindel says parents can help both refine and expand kids’ vocabulary and grammar through modelling. For example, if a child seems stuck at the one-word level and asks for more milk by simply saying “milk,” parents can respond by saying “More milk?” and encourage their child to do the same.

Older siblings can get involved by helping with modelling. “Tell them in advance the words that we’re working on, like ‘milk’ and ‘bed’ and ‘puppy’—words that are relevant to the younger child,” says Schindel.

3. Recognizing Delayed Language Development
While the range of normal is broad, Schindel suggests consulting a health professional if you have any concerns. For example, red flags include no words or babble at age one and can possibly indicate a communication delay. (It’s also a good idea to have your child’s hearing checked to rule it out as a cause.) Even if they’re not talking, kids should be interacting with others and demonstrating understanding in other ways, such as pointing to toys they want or smiling when a parent mentions something enjoyable, like a bath. Frustration can indicate a gap between more-developed cognition and less-developed language skills. Earlier intervention is better, as it will minimize frustration for the child.

Schindel says that many late talkers are unrecognizable from their peers by four or five years of age and often catch up by Kindergarten. Eli, now four, is a prime example. “He never stops talking,” says Van Dyke, laughing. “He has an amazing vocabulary and tells so many stories.”

Notorious for writing well over his assigned word count, CF contributing editor Tim Johnson is rarely at a loss for words.



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