Infants & Toddlers: The Sounds of Language

From birth, babies are exploring sounds and communicating in their own way. With your support, they'll be great talkers by the time they're toddlers.

  • Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K

What's That Word?

Here's a guide to the words and phrases infants and toddlers can pronounce - and that you can emphasize for them.

Phrases infants use ... and what they mean

  • Wow-wow (dog)
  • Meow (cat)
  • Hi (greeting)
  • Pappa, Dada, Momma (parents)
  • Yo (yogurt)
  • Num-num (food)
  • Uh-oh (I made a mistake)
  • Bye (good-bye)
  • Baw (ball)

Phrases toddlers use ... and what they mean

  • Want dat! (I want that)
  • No night-night (I don't want to go to bed)
  • Roll Ball (Roll the ball to me)
  • Papa fix ( Papa, please fix this)
  • Doggy-bone! (That dog's chewing a bone)
  • Doggy dere! (There's a dog)
  • All gone juice (The cup is empty)
  • P'itty dess (Pretty dress)
  • Who dat? (Who is that?)
  • Whazzat? (What is that?)
  • Mine toy! (My toy)

INFANTS

BABIES ARE BORN with their brains wired to learn language. But no toy, mobile, or record can teach them to become language lovers. Caregivers who interact in intimate ways with infants are the ones who help prepare babies' brain circuits for language. The more you talk with babies, the more language they'll learn.

Talk Through Routines

The secret to promoting early language learning is to talk to babies whenever you're carrying out daily routines. Diaper changing is especially suited for talking together. A baby will look up as you cheerfully explain how you're making her bottom more comfortable. Try chanting as you wash, bathe, or diaper babies - they love rhythmic chants and songs!

Coo and Converse

The earliest throaty vowel sounds babies make are called "coos." Whenever a baby coos, respond delightedly. Let him know you love to hear him talking to you.

By about four or five months, babies learn to combine some of these experimental sounds, and by six to eight months, they can combine a consonant and a vowel. Next, they double those sounds and practice long strings of "da, da, da" or "ma, ma, ma." Express your pleasure at these vocalizations and repeat them to the baby.

Look and Label

At about 10 months, babies start to point out things that interest them. When a baby points to a toy, name it and bring it to him. By giving names to the things babies stare at, you're adding to their vocabulary and responding to their own expressed interests, which makes them more likely to learn the words.

Stress Single Words

Jargon or babbling is the typical stage of language that occurs from about 10 months onward. Babies use lots of intonations and combine strings of sounds in their babbling. a Sometimes you'll hear a word in the middle of a long babble. Listen carefully and you can obtain clues to the meaning of those sounds. By 11-12 months, some babies produce single words by themselves. The meaning of the words can vary: "Juice" could mean "I want juice" or "Look at the puddle of juice I spilled!"

TODDLERS

SINGLW WORDS ARE most common until somewhere near toddlers' second birthday. Then they take a momentous step in language development and begin to put two and three words together in meaningful ways.  Encourage toddlers by responding positively when you hear phrases, even if their pronunciation is still fuzzy. Enunciating your words clearly helps them understand you and enables them to learn words more easily.

Sing Move and Learn

Toddlers participate enthusiastically in songs that have lots of hand and body motions. "The Wheels on the Bus" is a wonderful song to engage toddlers with. They like to act out the motions of the whipers on the bus window and the way "the baby on the bus goes wah, wah, wah!"

Many time a s toddler who isn't very verbal in child care will feel more comfortable joining in songs. The hand motions and the melody of songs like "The Eentsy Weentsy Spider" just carry the toddler along. Sometimes toddlers even sing aloud to accompany their own actions and describe what they're doing.

Chant Through Transitions 

It's hard for toddlers to stop doing what they're absorbed in. Compose short, rhythmic chants to ease change between activities. "Soon we'll clean up our blocks. Soon we'll get ready for lunch time" is a fine chant to alert toddlers that there will be a change in activity. Chant in two or three notes and use simple words to explain what will happen next.

Chanted melodies can ease separation troubles too. For a toddler who's sad or worried and wants his poppa or momma to come get him, use a familiar melody ( such as "The farmer in the Dell") and chant "You want your momma (or poppa) to come back soon." This chant reassures him that his folks will be there shortly!

Keep Up the Conversation

Toddlers need you to respond to their comments, questions, assertions and wishes. They need you to talk while you're busy helping them. Tell them what you're doing as you set out plates for lunch or reach for some crayons so they can draw a picture.

Toddlers' early talk is called "telegraphic speach" because they cram so much meaning into two or three words! But sometimes their pronunciation is puzzling. Be positive and talk anyway. Try to keep rich conversation going. Pick up on the toddler's remarks and extend the conversation with genuine pleasure. Toddlers learn from you how precious their words and ideas are!

  • Subjects:
    Child and Infant Care, Child Development and Behavior, Communication and Language Development, Following Directions
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