We speak to Educational Psychologist, Kristen Strahlendorf to understand “toddler talk” is, and when to worry…

A typical 2-year-old can say about 50 words and speak in two- or three-word sentences. As a child grows so too does their word-object associations and at 3-years-old, their vocabulary can increase to about 1000 words. This is where children begin stringing sentences together in three to four words.

Typically, 3-year-olds can call themselves and others by name, ask questions, sing a song or nursery rhyme and form plurals.

Bilingualism and home languages

Bilingual children may say their first words later than children who speak only one language. “Children often imitate and copy what we do and say. This is part of your child’s learning as well as developing their vocabulary” says Strahlendorf.

When frequently switching between languages while speaking to your toddler, we may confuse their understanding of word-object associations. Strahlendorf recommends that if your child is having trouble grasping both languages, you should rather try to be consistent with one language and if your child is experiencing a speech delay, you shouldn’t hesitate to consult with a speech therapist or audiologist.

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As children become older, they are able to identify and switch between languages. Generally, children who study multiple languages have a higher ability to focus as switching between languages builds more neural pathways. Some medical practitioners believe speech delays are triggered if bilingualism is implemented at too an age, whilst others believe it to be a myth.

Home languages are important for cultural identification and should be promoted. Socio-cultural factors need to be taken into account when parents decide what language to teach their children. Parents should communicate with their children in the language they find best and only once the child has developed their speech should parents promote learning additional languages. Generally, English is the universal and ubiquitous communication language, and it is advisable for parents to add this as an additional language for communication opportunities and social integration.

“All children mature at different times, and if some milestones have not been met, this is not necessarily a point of worry”

What’s normal and when to worry

I must emphasise: “All children mature at different times, and if some milestones have not been met, this is not necessarily a point of worry. Some happen before and others after. Speech is about communicating verbally and non-verbally,” Strahlendorf says.

If your 3-year-old toddler doesn’t use at least 200 words, doesn’t ask for things by name or when parents and others find it difficult to understand their messages – these can be signs of a speech delay.

Sometimes speech can be impaired due to an array of factors such as speech and language disorders (childhood apraxia of speech) due to premature birth, hearing loss, lack of stimulation, autism, neurological problems, intellectual disabilities and problems with the mouth, tongue or palate i.e. ankyloglossia (being tongue-tied). A speech therapist would be able to do the correct assessment, if you believe this to be a speech related issue.

What parents can do if they suspect there’s a problem

If a child experiences a prolonged delay that involves the inability to say and repeat previously learned words, there may be underlying triggers that may affect your child’s speech. These could be developmental, emotional or physical triggers. An educational psychologist working along with a speech therapist can assist in providing a psycho-educational assessment and speech therapy. Parents should take their children to their GP to check their eyes and ears. This rules out some of the potential areas relating to speech issues.

Generally, parents should try to stick to one language during the formative years. Thereafter, learning an additional language should be easier to grasp, as the word-object associations are reinforced.

Additionally, mixing languages that are phonetically different and alphabetically diverse can also be an added challenge in the formative years.

In order to stimulate your child, do not speak to them in a ‘baby voice’, as they will learn words in this way. Using baby words, creates the incorrect object-word association, and can also create a disconnect in generally used words, when your toddler communicates with other children and adults. Speaking normally will aid their speech development. See if strangers understand your toddler as parents become accustomed to their toddler’s speech mannerism and may overlook obvious speech issues.

Parents should also get their toddlers to speak as much as possible, through songs, bedtime stories and asking them questions.

“Parental involvement is critical in the formative years of your child’s speech, as communication is the essence to human life and society. It starts with reading bedtime stories and getting your child to express their verbal and non-verbal language,” says Strahlendorf.