Monday, September 14, 2009

From Cues to Conversation: How Babies Learn to Talk (Part 2)

In this post we will continue our discussion about the stages of language development* focusing on the stages that tend to occur in the second year (for stages that occur in year 1, see Part 1). Don't forget that the ages we list are averages and that there is a wide range of "normal." If your baby's development seems different than described here, it is not necessarily cause for concern. If you do have concerns, discuss them with your pediatrician.

13-18 months
As babies enter their second year, their vocabulary grows with them. Many babies this age will use about 50 words. Practice makes perfect and this stage is all about practice. Pay attention to your baby's speech and acknowledge him when he is trying out new words. Olivia is in this stage now. She gets very excited when we know what she is saying and repeat it back to her.

18 months
Around 18 months, babies have a vocabulary "spurt" because they start to learn 3 or more words per day! Even though they are learning words at a rapid pace, they may be using some words incorrectly. For example, Olivia calls everything that is round "ball." When she calls something, like an orange or a balloon, "ball" we just say, "that is round like a ball, you're right, but it is balloon. Can you say balloon?" and most of the time she tries to say balloon. Babies at this age may also be testing their own knowledge by asking the same question over and over. For example, your baby may bring you every round toy he can find, each time saying "ball?"

21 months
Between 15 and 24 months, many babies start to use 2-word sentences. This stage is hard because the order of the words is important. Despite the difficulty, babies usually get the order right. By this age, you will really be able to see the benefit of all the talking you did when he was younger!

24 months
By 2 years of age, babies begin using multi-word sentences, though most are only 2 or 3 words long. All of their hard work has paid off and they are finally able to understand what language is for. Most importantly, they are able to express themselves just like you!

Simple ways you can help your baby learn to talk
  • Start talking to your baby right away! You may feel a little uncomfortable at first, but with practice, it will feel more and more natural.

  • Responding to your baby will build his confidence in his abilities to communicate.

  • Reading books, singing, and listening to music is a good way to expose your baby to your language

  • Use Baby Signs with your baby before he is able to speak. Knowing just a few of the most common signs, like "please," "more," "all done," and "milk," can reduce frustration and help your baby communicate with you.

  • Provide positive feedback when your baby tries new words and use an encouraging tone when correcting him.

  • Keep in mind that not all babies learn at the same pace. Even if your 2-year-old only knows half as many words as your sister's 18-month-old, that's OK. If you do have concerns, talk to your baby's doctor.

  • Enjoy! It is amazing how much babies learn in the first 2 years of their lives.
*Bloom and Lenneberg (Bloom (1993) The transition from infancy to language: Acquiring the power of expression and Lenneberg (1967) Biological Foundations of Language.

Next time: The votes are in! We'll start a series of posts on babies' developmental stages.


  1. Thanks for the great information. Our baby just turned one and we're anxiously awaiting that first word. He says "mama" and "dada" and all of the basics but its not yet clear if he attaches any meaning to them. He's just as likely to say "dada" when looking at my husband as he is while banging two toys together. And while he appropriately responds to a lot of what we're saying, we never know if it's the words or the tone/inflection/body language that he's picking up on. Regardless,this is definitely a fun time for all of us!

  2. It is fun isn't it?! It is amazing how quickly babies build their vocabularies once they get started. Remember, there is a wide range in ages when kids starting talking. Enjoy!