After the excitement of your toddler’s first word dies down, you may feel the growth in his vocabulary is surprisingly slow in the next few months. But don’t worry – that’s completely normal.
If your toddler says his first word at 1 year, typically he only uses between 30 and 50 words six months later.
After 18 months, however, there’s a ‘naming explosion’ with a huge surge in the rate that he acquires new words. Estimates suggest your toddler’s vocabulary now increases at an average rate of six words a day. And when his vocabulary has at least 100 words, he starts to talk in phrases and short sentences. Your toddler thinks, “Now I can really tell mum what I want!”
Your toddler’s first sentences
Typically, your toddler’s first sentences are:
Short. He moves from single words to two- or three-word phrases. By the age of 2, his sentences have four or five words, and by the time he’s 30 months, he’ll use up to 10 words.
Telegraphic. Just as telegrams use only essential words and miss out smaller ones, your toddler talks in a similar way. He says, “Me want ball”, instead of, “I want the ball.”
Rule-based. You can predict, for example, that he’ll say “Mummy chair” when he means to say, “That’s Mummy’s chair”, because his sentence structure follows basic rules.
Being able to say what he’s thinking
Between your toddler’s 2nd and 3rd birthdays, what he says in sentences becomes much closer to what he thinks. For instance, he includes lots of smaller words such as ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘my’ and ‘am’, and he starts to use plurals, past tenses, prepositions and other minor grammatical structures.
Instead of just nouns and verbs, your toddler speaks with a broad range of grammatical structures, making his speech more closely resemble yours.
Your toddler also starts to use inflections, so for example, he raises his voice at the end of a phrase to indicate a question.
Making mistakes when he talks
Expect your toddler to make plenty of mistakes while he improves his speech and language. Sometimes, he may mix words up, get confused, mispronounce initial letter sounds, and even make up words that he’s never heard you use.
Remember not to correct your toddler when he makes these sorts of mistakes, or he may become unnecessarily anxious, resulting in a reluctance to speak. If you emphasise minor errors, he thinks, “I’ll just keep quiet rather than be told off again.”
A more effective strategy is to say the correct words and phrases yourself, as if you’re agreeing with him rather than pointing out his mistake. If he watches a bird fly away and says, “Birdie flowed way” you could say, “Yes, that’s right. The bird has flown away.”
How to encourage sentences
1. React to your toddler’s sentences
Look at your toddler when he talks to you, and try to make an appropriate response. He thrives on your attention.
2. Change a familiar story
Amend his favourite story a bit, perhaps changing the name of a central character. Watch for his reaction when he notices this.
3. Use a toy telephone
He’ll enjoy imaginary conversations on a toy telephone, such as ‘phoning’ his grandmother or best friend. Once started, he won’t stop!
4. Vary your speech
Use alternative words for a concept, for instance, ‘large’ instead of ‘big’, ‘tasty’ for ‘nice’. He’ll instinctively start to use these words himself.