Up until now, your toddler has been using mainly single words. She's probably picked up one or two words a week, with no real urgency or speed. Somewhere between 18 and 24 months, though, she'll reach a magical turning point. When she's got about 50 words in her vocabulary, she'll start putting two words together into short sentences. And with those two milestones in place, she'll enter what we call a language explosion. We're not sure exactly how children are able to accomplish this feat, but we do know this: once they hit this language explosion, they gain words so swiftly that by the time they hit their second birthday, most children have hundreds and hundreds of words in their vocabulary and are putting those words into a wide variety of two and three-word sentences. It's truly a sight to behold.
Even though your little one is saying lots more words, her speech may still be pretty hard to understand. As her parent, you probably understand a lot of what she says, mainly because you know her so well that you can predict what it is she wants before she even tries to tell you. Others, though, might only understand her about 50% of the time. Be assured that this is very normal. Your toddler is still learning how to produce speech sounds and the vast majority of her words are simplified versions of grown-up words. By 2 years old, you can expect your toddler to produce most vowels and the consonant sounds b,p,t,d,n,m,h,and w well when she is saying short, little words that start and end with a single consonant (mom, dad, pat, hot). She can also say words that have two short syllables (e.g., baby). She'll probably change all other words and sounds to make them fit into her speech abilities- so "blanket" might become "baytee," bubble might be "buboh" and "grandma" might be "dama." Worry not--this is a very normal part of child development!
At 2 years, your little one continues to understand more than she can say. She's begun what many language experts call the fast mapping stage of language development, where she can learn what a word means after hearing it as little as one time. Can you imagine, as an adult, being able to learn language so quickly? We'd all be multi-lingual! By 24 months, children understand thousands of words, can point out a wide variety of pictures in books and can show off a number of different body parts. Importantly, they can now follow directions that they wouldn't normally see someone do, such as "put the block on your head!" This shows us that they are truly understanding the words in a sentence, rather than just guessing at what is being asked based on what they've seen happen throughout their day.
As your child's little brain continues to develop during these months, you'll see her begin to problem-solve in new ways. Suddenly, you might see her push a chair (or a cooler!) over to a counter (or a sink!) that she wants to climb on. Although this can make parenting a bit, um, challenging, it is a skill that I'm always excited to see develop. It tells us that your child is learning to use objects as tools that can help her get what she wants. In a similar way, words become her tools for getting her needs met around the house!
Your little one's play, gestures, and social skills continue to develop as well. She'll get your attention by pointing at and labeling things that interest her with increasing frequency. You'll also notice her doing more and more pretend play-- she'll pretend to do things like cooking food, pushing a stroller, flying an airplane, and playing a musical instrument. She'll use two toys together in play-- for example, she might put a blanket on a baby when putting the baby to sleep. She might also enjoy helping you clean up (take advantage of this while it lasts!), and will notice if toys are broken and try to fix them on her own. Finally, you'll notice that she's started to take an interest in other children; although she's not quite ready to play interactively with other children, she'll start to really enjoy playing next to them (something we call parallel play).
Your little one will develop fast and furiously during this period of child development. By the end of it, she'll have become her own little person, bursting with thoughts and ideas that she wants to share with you. Stand back, watch it happen, and rediscover the world right along with her.
Looking for more information on speech and language development?
Looking for strategies and activities to use at this age?