5 Tips to Make Your Toddler Talk Real Good

Man, I wish I had the toddler years to do over again. I would totally nail them. Not my own toddler years -- though to tell you the truth I made some terrible decisions between 1 and 3 that I wish I could have back. I mean my daughter's.

After spending my 20s scorning psychology as a major for sorority girls, I've recently become obsessed with it, especially kids and language acquisition. I took one of the amazing free online Yale courses from language development specialist Paul Bloom, read my Malcolm Gladwell, listened to RadioLab's language episodes. I think it's fair to say I'm something of an expert. Especially after a few beers. If only I had that tiny mind to mold again!

Okay, who am I kidding? I'd probably screw up all over again and need to be bailed out by my mama and my baby mama. But the stuff's interesting!


I've been delving recently into the work of the folks who wrote NurtureShock, who distill the recent thinking on toddlers and language into an interesting listicle for Good Morning America. They begin: 

A nine-month-old child is typically developing if he can speak even one word ... By two, he will speak around 320 words. A couple months later over 570. Then the floodgates open ... By the time he's off to kindergarten, he may easily have a vocabulary of over 10,000 words.

And as I learned in my Ivy League Smart Kid Class at Yale, the capacity to absorb language really falters at the end of the single-digit ages. So if your kids are getting there, hurry up and teach them Mandarin! Soon they'll be as crappy at learning it as you.

In the toddler years, it has long been the thinking that you just need to drown your kids in waves of words. But as NurtureShock authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explain, "The newest science has concluded that the central role of the parent is not to push massive amounts of language into the child's ears," but to "notice what's coming from the child and respond accordingly." 

Here's five practical tips they offer, with my explanation and comments. They actually offer eight, but the last three get a tad academic, which means I don't really get them.

1. Baby Talk May Sound Silly But It's Really Good for Kids: The long, lilting, and singing tones that grown-ups use for babies and puppies amounts to a universal, easy-to-understand language in its tone alone. The content hardly matters, in fact you could recognize Swahili baby-talk as baby talk. So don't try to talk to kids as grown-ups thinking it will speed their big learning. Have you also noticed that when a kid says something cutely wrong, like "I walked-ed then I runned-ed then I stopped-ed," no parent -- except maybe some real jerks -- corrects them? They celebrate it! You'd think that would reinforce the lousy speech, but it melts away anyway. 

2. Labeling Objects Right: Obviously everyone points and gives kids the words for objects around the house. But some ways are better than others. It's best not to force your will, but to wait until the child takes an interest in something, then name it. Apparently this works best if you say the word just at the moment they're taking an interest in something. So make sure you hover over them, and never do dishes or sit at the computer. 

3. Beware Criss-Cross Labeling: Don't put words in your little one's mouth. If you hold up a spoon and they say, "Ba," don't say, "Oh, you mean bottle?" Just accept that "ba" is their attempt to say "spoon" and it will clear up. As Bronson and Merryman say ominously of word learning, "Frequently crisscrossed labeling can slow it to a near halt."

4. Use Motionese: When you give a word for something, shake it, swing it, and move it around. It both helps keep the child's attention on it, and turns the moment into a multi-sensory experience. This is only helpful until about 15 months old, so hurry!

5. Expose Your Child to Multiple Speakers: Hearing one person, even mama, say a word 10 times is not nearly as effective as hearing 10 people say it once. As the authors explain: "Hearing multiple speakers gave the children the opportunity to hear how the phonics were the same, even if the voices varied in pitch and speed. By hearing in the speech what was different, they learned what was the same." So those big group settings you have to go to are useful, so long as the toddlers get to hear "tired," "stressed," and "frustrated" from 10 different mouths.

Of course much of this is stuff we all do automatically. That's kind of the point. There's no need to impose a magic formula. Just keep baby-talkin'.

Are your kids talking a lot? What do they say?


Image via mpclemens/Flickr

Read More >