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How do toddlers learn language?

Toddlers: Communication

Eileen Hayes (Editor in Chief - Your Family magazine) gives expert video advice on: My toddler hasn't started talking yet, should I be worried?; What can I do to prevent my toddler having a tantrum?; How should I deal with a toddler tantrum when it occurs? and more...

How do toddlers learn language?

The thing to look out for first is what's called "receptive language". That means that children are understanding what you say, and that starts at about age one. They can wave bye-bye when you tell them. They can pass you a toy or a cup when you ask for it. You realise the child understands what you're saying. Provided they're doing that, it's not so important that they start with "expressive language", which is using the words. You should still try to encourage language by talking as much as possible to the child, and using the words over and over. Say, "Yes, this is your cup", "Pass me your cup", "Here is the cup". The more you reinforce the language yourself, over and over, the quicker children will learn. It's also important for parents to know that children don't learn from watching television or hearing something in the distance. You have to be down on the child's level, making eye contact when you're teaching language. That's the best way for them to learn that.

My toddler hasn't started talking yet, should I be worried?

It very much depends on the age of your child. Language develops to a very recognized sequence, beginning with babbling in older babies, going through just a few words like dada or mama, and then gradually putting two words together, until eventually children are talking in whole sentences. The sequence is the same right across every child, but individual children will do it very much at their own pace. One child may talk very early, by 18 months they might be saying quite a bit. Another child will be closer to three, and both those things are within the normal range.

What is the 'no' phase?

This is a very common feature of toddlers. If you listen to a small child around two, they actually even stand there saying to themselves no, no, no, no, no, no, no, for no reason. And, in a way, if you think about it, when they're little babies, you can just put them down. They have to stay where you put them, you choose their clothes, you choose what they eat, and it's a huge challenge to them that suddenly they can say no to you. They do it just because they can. This is the chance for them to show they've got wills of their own; and that's very normal. It can feel irritating to parents, but it's inevitable that once they realize they can say no, they will.

What is a tantrum?

Tantrums are one of the worst parts of looking after a toddler. It's really an explosion, an emotional explosion. Children don't have the language to explain to parents what they want. Lots of things are frustrating for them - they can't reach the biscuit tin, they can't make you understand, they can't find the right piece of the puzzle. All of those things, because they aren't able to express them, can lead to them just boiling over and having a tantrum. It's a very normal reaction at this phase. Parents should not think of it as being done to annoy them, even though it's very hard to deal with.

My toddler's tantrums are extreme and frequent, is that normal?

It's difficult to be certain when a child's around two to three years, because something like one in five children have several tantrums a day. So where a parent might be saying this is it extreme, it might still be within the normal range. It's really only once the child gets to about three or four, four really, that you could think this is still going on. This is perhaps something I need to find out about, but certainly around two, most of it will be normal behavior.

My toddler is always whining and complaining, is this normal?

Toddlers whine and complain when you aren't spending time and providing attention to them. The quickest way to stop their whining is to give attention to them.