Language & Communication

Talking & language development


Language & Communication

May start as early as

12 to 14 months

Related skills

Babbling, Pointing, Crying

You wait patiently for months to hear your baby’s first words, but what will they be? You might assume “Mama” or “Dada,” but there are other common first words that might surprise you. Here’s what to know about your baby’s language development, including how to encourage those first words.

In this article:

When do babies start talking?

Babies often say their first word between 12 and 14 months. By the time they’re 15 months of age, they may have learned between one and three words. 

Long before they’re able to say recognizable words however, babies babble and use gestures to communicate, such as pointing, reaching, and clapping. Babies also develop receptive language skills—the ability to understand words and language—before expressive language skills, or the ability to communicate and express their thoughts, needs, and emotions. 

By 12 to 15 months, your toddler may understand between 20 and 100 words. Even earlier, at 5 to 9 months, your baby may show they understand what you’re saying by turning their head or looking when they hear their name.

What are the most common first words?

Common first words for babies include people (Mama, Dada, Nana), greetings (hi or bye-bye), food-related words (yum or nom) or names for items they use often, such as bottle or ball (bah-bah or ba).

Why do babies tend to learn these words first? Research suggests that babies’ earliest words use sounds they can easily see and hear how to pronounce. Think about the words “mama” or “ball:” As you say them, your top and bottom lips meet to form the “m” and “b,” known as bilabial sounds. Your baby can see how your mouth makes the sound, which may make it easier for them to reproduce it. Findings from the study of languages including French, Swedish, and Japanese suggest that words with these bilabial sounds are among the first words babies learn.

You may wonder what “counts” as a word when your baby is first learning to talk. Experts suggest that if your baby uses a word or word approximation consistently and on their own—not imitating someone else—it counts as a word in their emerging vocabulary. For example, if your baby consistently uses “bah-bah” when pointing to or indicating a bottle, that is their “word” for a bottle.

Lovevery co-founder Jessica Rolph shows how to use the ‘Things I See’ Texture Cards to encourage your baby’s first words:

Find more activities and ideas tailored to your child’s exact stage of development with The Lovevery App

How can I encourage my baby to talk?

You play a key role in supporting your baby’s language development—your baby learns to talk through the process of listening and interacting with you. Try these ideas to encourage them:

Narrate your day. Talk to your baby often, using a slow, higher-pitched voice. You can talk about anything, from everyday activities to favorite playthings. Studies show that the number of words a baby understands relates to how often they’ve heard high-frequency words that describe everyday things—objects, people, places, and actions. As much as you can, get down to your baby’s eye level and show interest in what they’re doing, looking at, and playing with—and label it.

Listen and respond. Tune into your baby’s vocalizations and attempts to communicate by responding as if you understand. This process helps establish a strong serve-and-return relationship with your baby. Even at this young age, they’re beginning to learn how back-and-forth conversational patterns work: You say something, and then they respond. Your baby’s response may be a smile, a raspberry, a movement, a facial expression, a coo, or a babble. Playfully mimicking your baby’s babble can accelerate their language skills.  

Say it again. Repeat key words like “up,” names of family members, “uh-oh,” and favorite foods.

Fill in the word. Tune into your baby’s cues and teach them the word they want to say. For example, if they say “ba, ba, ba” while looking around, and you think they might be looking for their bottle, ask them and repeat the word. For example, “Do you want your bottle? I see your bottle right here. Here’s your bottle. Bottle.”

Give them opportunities. Offer a choice between two favorite playthings and ask which one they want, giving them the name of each item. If they point or make a sound rather than saying the word, give them the plaything and repeat its name. Or sing a familiar song and pause at the end of phrases to elicit a sound or a word— “Twinkle, twinkle, little…”

Read often. Reading to your baby supports their language development, even if story time only lasts a minute or two. Don’t feel like you need to finish a book or even read every word; instead, follow your baby’s lead. Describe a particular picture they’re interested in rather than finishing the book. Label the picture with a word or two, then wait, giving your baby a chance to try to repeat the word.

Can sign language help babies communicate before they start talking?

Babies who learn sign language develop pathways for communication sooner than they would otherwise, research suggests. According to speech and language experts, your baby’s signs can be included in their early word count—as long as they’re used consistently and in the appropriate context.

Signing helps support your child’s ability to communicate before they develop solid verbal language skills. Your baby’s use of sign language may also help reduce frustration because it gives your baby more ways to communicate with you. Signing can help support your baby’s fine motor skills as well. 

Tips for introducing your child to sign language:

Experts recommend that families use the real sign language used by Deaf people in their region—for instance, American Sign Language (ASL). This way, your baby’s early signed words can develop into real language.

Start with functional words. When introducing sign language to your baby, start with a few basic, functional signs that they can easily copy. Choose signs for everyday objects or activities in your baby’s routine, like “eat,” “milk,” “more,” “help,” or “all done.”  

Say it while you sign it. When you say the word as you model the sign, your baby can associate signs with the corresponding spoken words. For example, when you say the word “eat,” also use the sign for “eat” at the same time. 
Be consistent. Like any other language, learning to sign takes patience, repetition, and practice.

Lovevery child development expert Rachel Coley explains how to support early sign language in this video from The Lovevery App:

How does bilingualism affect language development?

Bilingualism doesn’t contribute to speech delays, research shows. Bilingual children may say their first words slightly later than children who speak only one language, but within about the same age range of 12 to 15 months. 

If your baby is being raised in a bilingual home, they aren’t any more likely than monolingual babies to have difficulties with language learning. Early on, bilingual children often know fewer words in each of their languages than children who only speak one language—for example, an English-Spanish speaking child may know fewer words in English than a child who only speaks that language. But when you count words across both languages, bilingual children commonly know about the same number of total words as their monolingual peers. They also tend to develop grammar along the same patterns and timelines as monolingual children. 

Between birth and age 3, your baby is hard-wired to absorb language, so if you would like your child to be bilingual, it’s best to expose them to multiple languages even before they can talk. Your baby won’t become confused; rather, their brain will pick up on the differences between the languages and begin building connections to support each of them. Bilingualism benefits your child in more ways than just their expressive language ability, or what they can say. For example, bilingualism can help their brain processing become faster and more efficient.

Tips for supporting bilingualism in your child:

Speak to your baby often. Narrate your baby’s experiences and what’s happening in the world around them, making sure to provide consistent exposure to both languages. Practice responding to their vocalizations as though the two of you are having a conversation.

Read books in multiple languages. The more your baby is exposed to language and emotionally responsive interactions, the better. Some research even shows that babies adjust their babbles and intonations in response to the language being used by their caregivers.  

Sing or play music. Like bilingual books, music lets your baby hear words in both languages. You can try singing simple songs in each language. Eventually, your child will be able to mimic some of the words of the song.  

Child speech expert Veronica Fernandez, PhD, explains the benefits of learning two languages—and how bilingualism may support speech development:

Language development milestones by age

Language development is a complex process that involves cognitive, social, and even physical skills. From your baby’s first day at home with you, they’re listening to words all around them. 

Although each language is unique, all the world’s languages have a set of basic elements. Each of these elements or sounds are what researchers call phonemes. For example, there are approximately 44 phonemes, or distinct sounds, within the English language. Your baby’s brain is primed to pick out these phonemes, or sounds, while interacting with you or others. As your baby grows, they watch your mouth movements and listen for phonemes to understand and mimic language sounds, until at last they are able to say their first words.

Here’s what to listen for as your baby’s language and communication skills develop over time:

Language development from newborn to 3 months

From the first hours of life, your baby is working out how to communicate their needs and preferences through crying and small sounds. During this stage of language development, your baby may:

  • Make sounds when they’re comfortable or content (0 to 3 months)
  • Cry when they’re hungry or uncomfortable (0 to 1 month)
  • Start making sucking sounds (0 to 1 month)
  • Make sounds other than crying, like squeaks and grunts (1 to 2 months)
  • Squeal (2 to 6 months)
  • Make cooing vowel sounds, like “oooooh” and “aaaaaah” (2 to 4 months)
  • Respond with sounds when you talk to them (2 to 4 months)
Squeaks and grunts are your newborn’s first attempts at communicating with you.

When do babies start cooing?

Your baby may begin cooing around 2 to 4 months of age. A typical coo consists of a single-syllable, open-vowel sound like “ahh” or “ohh.” These sounds require hardly any rounding of the lips. 

After a couple of months, your baby’s sounds will progress to closed-vowel sounds, such as “oooo” or “eeee,” where the mouth is not as wide or open. If your baby isn’t cooing yet, there are a few activities you can do to encourage this skill:

Allow mouthing. Let your baby mouth safe objects and their hands. Mouthing may aid in later language development by strengthening the jaws and lips for speech.

Start the conversation. Start the cooing “conversation” by sitting face-to-face with your baby and making a sound like “ahh” or “ohh.” They may repeat it or make their own sound. Either way, repeat it and add another sound. Try to use exaggerated lip movements and a high-pitched tone. Give your baby several seconds to respond—it takes a little longer for their brain to process new input. Diaper changes and bath time are great opportunities to practice these “conversation” skills.

Engaging your baby in cooing “conversations” encourages communication.

Make eye contact. Research shows that babies vocalize more when they gaze into an adult’s eyes. Smile and gaze back at them while talking softly, and watch their cues—when your baby starts to avert their gaze, they’re ready for a break. 

Mimic or respond. Mimicking your baby’s sounds is one of the most effective ways to promote early language skills. Focus on making eye contact, smiling, and imitating your baby when they start cooing. Your baby will be motivated to continue vocalizing if they get a consistent response from you ❤️

As your baby coos more and their jaw, tongue, and lip control improve, they’ll progress to diphthongs, which are vowels that go from one sound to another, such as “ahh-ooh.”

Lovevery child development expert Rachel Coley demonstrates how the Black & White Card Set can help you “talk” with your baby:

Language development from 3 to 6 months  

This phase of your baby’s development brings some exciting and adorable additions to your baby’s language skills. In this stage, they’re working on discovering their voice and communicating with you through a variety of sounds—cooing, squealing, and babbling. During this stage of language development, your baby may:

  • Squeal (2 to 6 months)
  • Make cooing vowel sounds, like “oooooh” and “aaaaaah” (2 to 4 months)
  • Respond with sounds when you talk to them (2 to 4 months)
  • Take turns making sounds with you (2 to 6 months) 
  • Blow “raspberries” (4 to 6 months) 
  • Babble or make various sound combinations, like “ba,” “da,” or “ma” (4 to 7 months)
  • Make a high-pitched squeal when happy or excited (4 to 6 months)
  • Use reduplicated babbling with consonant sounds, like “mamama” and “bababa” (5 to 9 months)

When do babies understand their name?

Your baby may start to recognize their name around 6 to 7 months of age—you may see your little one smile or look up when you call their name. This is a skill that develops over several months, so if your 6-month-old baby doesn’t respond to their name yet, be patient.

To help your baby know their name, try to use it often as you talk to them: “Sara, here’s your bottle,” or “Here comes the ball, Charlie!”

Between 6 and 7 months, you may see your little one smile at the sound of their name.

When do babies start to babble?

Many babies start to babble “baba-baba” around 6 months. Around this age, your baby will discover their own voice and the fun (and loud!) sounds they can make. 

You might be surprised to learn that your baby has different types of babbling. As they become more accustomed to vocalizing, they’re able to articulate different combinations of sounds: 

Chain babbling (commonly starts between 4 and 6.5 months): You may hear a consistent string of single-consonant and single-vowel sounds, such as “babababababa,” as your baby works on coordinating their lips, tongue and jaw movements. Encourage these vocalizations by smiling and responding with similar babbling sounds.  

Chain babbling commonly starts between 4 and 6.5 months, and sounds like “babaab,” “dadada,” or “mamama.”

Babbling double consonants (may start between 5 and 8 months): Once your baby learns better breathing control and coordination of their mouth, they may begin double-consonant babbles such as  “baba” and “mama.” During this phase, try incorporating fun double-consonant words into your interactions: say “bye-bye” when your pet leaves the room, for instance. You can also try imitating your baby’s babbling chains, but intentionally shorten them: if they say “bababababa,” respond with “baba.”

Babbling with others (often starts between 5.5 and 6.5 months): As your baby’s babbling progresses, they may begin to babble back and forth with you, almost like a real conversation. Encourage their babbling by responding—even if it feels silly 🙃 You can repeat their sounds or respond as though you know exactly what they’re saying: “Oh, really? I can’t believe it!” All of this reinforces the idea that talking is a way to communicate with others.

Ways to support your baby’s language development at 3 to 6 months

“Parentese” (4 months): You know the high-pitched, singsong, exaggerated voice that many of us instinctively use with babies? Research suggests that it’s highly beneficial for language development. Known as “parentese,” this engaging speaking style is effective at grabbing a baby’s attention and helping them learn words faster. 

A great time to use parentese is when you’re reading with your baby. Sit down together and look at the Wooden Book. Your slow, exaggerated sounds and varied pitch will make them think: “This book is exciting! I love that fish!” Don’t be surprised if they try to imitate your speech with a coo or squeal.

Slow-paced “conversations” with your baby (4 to 10 months): Around 4 to 10 months of age, your baby is beginning to comprehend that words represent actual objects and events. To your baby, adult conversation sounds something like this: “Areyouhungrywanttoeat?” Your adult brain is able to insert space between the words, but your baby’s brain can’t do that yet.                  

This is why it can be helpful to speak at a slightly slower pace. Your baby will be able to hear the separation between words and sounds more easily. Enjoy these “conversations” with your baby by responding to the sounds they make. As you’re headed out together for the day, narrate your actions step by step, saying, “Now we’re going over to the door. I’m going to touch the handle and open it. I’m opening the door with my hand. Oh, do you feel that? There’s a little breeze outside. Do you feel the air on your face? I can feel it on my face. The sun is shining, too.”

Reinforce language with touch: Boost receptive language—words they understand before they can say them—by naming parts of the body. Start by looking through the “Parts of Me” Book together, naming and pointing at body parts in the pictures and then on your baby’s body. Reinforce this by touching the Organic Cotton Rainbow Ball to each body part on your baby again. Rub it against your baby’s leg as you say, “leg,” then touch it to your baby’s hand and say, “hand.” This is a great way to link auditory and tactile input to language. 

Watch Lovevery child development expert Rachel Coley demonstrate how to teach language through sensory play:

Find more ideas and activities tailored to your child’s exact stage of development in The Lovevery App

Language development from 6 to 9 months 

At this stage of development, your baby is becoming more aware of the world and people around them. This growing awareness is also evident in their language skills. Your baby is beginning to recognize their own name more often and possibly even recognize the names of others. Their babbling may start to take on new clarity, and you may begin to have “conversations” with them as you respond to their babbling. During this stage of language development, your baby may:

  • Babble consonant sounds, like “mamama” and “bababa” (5 to 9 months) 
  • Turn their head or look when they hear their name called (5 to 9 months)
  • Lift their arms to ask you to pick them up (6 to 9 months) 
  • Look to find familiar people or pets when asked, “Where is ____?”  (6 to 9 months) 

New babbling skills at 6 to 9 months
Babbling is a pre-speech skill that develops in stages. The second of these stages is known as reduplicated babbling, and you’ll hear it as simple double-consonant sounds such as “baba” and “mama.” 

You may wonder if those babbles have meaning, but they don’t yet.​​ That said, babbles do play an important role in language acquisition. When your child babbles, it strengthens and builds coordination in their lips, tongue, jaw, and voice box, so they can articulate sounds more clearly. Between 11 and 14 months, your baby may “Dada” or “Mama” on purpose ❤️

Did you know that the way you respond to your baby’s babbling can actually shape the way they communicate? In a 2014 study, researchers found that babies whose parents responded to their babbles frequently and sensitively showed an increase in new consonant-vowel vocalizations (“baba, mama, dada”) that sounded more and more like discernible words. The babies also began directing their babbling at their caregiver, indicating a more advanced understanding of how social communication works.

Ways to support your baby’s language development at 6 to 9 months:

Respond to your baby’s babbling: Try to figure out what your baby is babbling about and respond supportively. If your baby is playing with the Spinning Rainbow, you might say, “Wow! The rainbow is going so fast. Do you see all those colors fly by?” This helps your baby understand that words have meaning and can be used to describe their experience.

Responding to your baby’s babbling shows them their communication is important.

Repetition really matters: When it comes to developing your baby’s vocabulary, repetition really helps. One study found that babies who heard the same repeated words were better able to understand their meaning. By age 2, those same children also had stronger vocabulary and language comprehension.

  • If an object or person attracts your baby’s attention, repeat the words for those things. For example, if you see your baby stare at a dog, you can say, “You’re looking at the dog. Dog! Woof-woof!” 
  • Slow down and emphasize the word that you’re trying to teach.
  • Use a new word in different circumstances and contexts. This can help reinforce and deepen your baby’s understanding of a word. 
  • Repeat your baby’s babbles. Try to figure out the real word your baby may be trying to communicate and say it aloud. 

Up-close connection: Get face-to-face while playing, eating, or exploring. This allows you to share the moment and encourage your baby’s communication attempts.

Wait for it: Instead of rushing to give your baby something they want, place it farther away or hesitate so you create an opportunity for them to ask for it with a gesture, sound, or first word.

Give details: Use clear and simple language and vary the structure. For example, don’t just ask questions (“Do you want the car?”) but also label (“That’s a car”), add detail (“It’s a big, blue car”), narrate (“We’re driving in the car”), and exclaim (“The car is going so fast!”).

Fun sounds: Incorporate sounds and words that are fun to hear and make like “boom,” “yuck,” “yummy,” “beep-beep,” or “ouch!” Pair these with exaggerated voices or facial expressions so they’re easier to remember and understand.

Playful imitation: Imitate your baby’s actions, facial expressions, sounds, and words to let them know they’re communicating effectively. 

Reading: Books are great for introducing sounds, vocabulary, and ideas. Take your time and enthusiastically emphasize different words and concepts.

Language development at 9 to 12 months

As your baby approaches their first birthday, they may not be able to say real words yet. However, they’re able to understand a lot more than they can say. For example, your baby may pause sometimes when they hear the word “no,” indicating they know what this word means. 

Many parents underestimate how many words their babies or young toddlers already understand. Try watching closely for non-verbal signals to get a better idea of what your baby knows. 

By about 9 to 14 months, your baby may respond to what you say by turning their head, lifting their arms, or using other body language. You may notice your toddler turn toward a family member when asked, “Where’s Papa?” or lift their arms when you say, “Would you like up?” These are indications that their receptive vocabulary—the collection of words they understand—is expanding. Ask them questions or make simple requests: “Where’s the dog?” or “Hand me the spoon, please.” Watch how your toddler responds to see what words they may know. 

During this stage of language development, your baby may: 

  • Babble consonant sounds, like “mamama” and “bababa” (5 to 9 months)
  • Lift their arms to ask you to pick them up (6 to 9 months) 
  • Look to find familiar people or pets when asked, “Where is ____?” (6 to 9 months) 
  • Call you or another caregiver by a special name, like “Mama” or “Dada” (10 to 12 months)
  • Pause sometimes when they hear the word “no” (10 to 12 months)
  • Repeat sounds or try to imitate words (10 to 14 months)
  • Wave “bye-bye” (10 to 12 months) 

Ways to support your baby’s language development at 9 to 12 months:

Play imitation games: Imitate your baby’s gestures, sounds, and words. When they babble and smile at you, babble back. Pause to give your baby a moment to respond and repeat. 

Notice what your baby notices: If you’re out for a walk and your baby calls out, stop and see if you can guess what has caught their attention. You could say: “I heard you shout! What do you see? Oh! Is it the dog?”

Describe what they see: If your baby is looking toward an object, you can describe what you see: “I notice you are looking at the cups! Here, let me help you reach them.”

Lots of labeling: Label items in your environment. Point to an object or pick it up, and call it by name. For example, at mealtime, hold a banana at eye level and say, “Here is your banana! Yum!” If you are playing with your baby on the floor, hold up two toys, “Look! I have a ball (move it toward them) and a book (move the book toward them). I wonder which one you want?” Watch to see which your baby looks at or reaches for. Name their choice: “Oh! You picked the ball!” 

Narrate your day: Narrate throughout the day to bring awareness to what your baby and you are doing. You can say things like “I see you banging those balls together! Bang, bang, bang!” “I’m pouring milk into your bottle!”  “I’m going to clean your bottom. Oh, sorry, the wipe is cold!”

Language development for toddlers from 12 to 24 months

As your child reaches their first birthday, their language skills may become more obvious. Their receptive language is developing, so they may understand your questions and respond with gestures, head nods, or pointing to communicate with you. They may also start to say their first words between 12 and 15 months of age.

Your toddler may also use non-verbal communication to ask for what they need: They may shake their head “no,” nod their head “yes,” or clap when they’re excited. This shows they know these actions carry meaning, and they’re using them to tell you something. 

During this stage of language development, your child may:

  • String together babbles with inflection and gestures as if talking (12 to 24 months)
  • Use gestures like pointing to get something they want or communicate (10 to 15 months)
  • Say one to two words or word approximations, like “ba” for “bottle” or “woof” for dog, in addition to whatever they call you (12 to 15 months)
  • Follow a simple direction combined with a gesture (“Bring me the ball” as you point at a ball) 
  • Wave hello or goodbye in social encounters, after some practice (9 to 14 months)
  • Understand one-step verbal directions without the help of gestures to communicate meaning (15 to 18 months)
  • Say around three or more words or word approximations, like “ba” for “bottle” or “woof” for dog (15 to 18 months)
  • Say the word or shake their head to say “no” (15 to 18 months)
  • Identify at least one body part by pointing to or touching it when named (13 to 24 months)
  • Point to things in a book in response to a simple question, like “Where is the moon?” (15 to 24 months)
  • Put two words together, like “More milk” (18 to 24 months)
  • Identify up to two body parts by pointing to them (18 to 24 months)
  • Use several gestures in addition to waving and pointing (15 to 24 months) 
  • “Sing” or use gestures to familiar rhymes and songs (12 to 24 months)
  • Ask “what that” or “that?” while they point to things in the environment (18 to 30 months)
By around 12 to 15 months, your toddler will be able to understand and follow simple directions when combined with a gesture, such as “Bring me the ball” as you point at a ball.

When do babies say “Mama”? (or “Dada”)

Around 12 to 14 months of age, babies usually say their first word. Often, one of these first words is the name for their caregiver, like “Mama” or “Dada.” Although your baby may have babbled something that sounded like “ma-ma-ma” or “da-da-da” earlier, by 12 to 14 months they’re probably saying it on purpose and are referring to their special person ❤️ 

How many words should a 12-month old say?

By the time your child reaches 12 months of age, they may only have mastered one or two words, or word approximations. A few months later, between 15 to 18 months, most toddlers will have an expressive vocabulary of at least three words, not including “mama” or “dada.”

Soon, however, your child will probably experience what scholars call a “language explosion.” By around 18 to 24 months of age, your toddler may be learning up to 10 new words a week. While this explosion of words seems to come out of the blue, your child’s brain has been working on these language skills since birth. Slowly, over time, your child has been figuring out word sounds, learning simple words, and at this stage everything falls into place—and their language learning takes off.

RELATED: The science behind your child’s ‘language explosion’

Ways to support your toddler’s language development at 12 to 15 months

Repeat words often: For instance, if your toddler is eating and wants more food, they may babble or gesture to let you know or get your attention. Model the language with an emphasis on the word they can use to get help. You can say, “You want more pancakes! More! Here you go, here are more pancakes.” Or, if the two of you are playing with a ball and your toddler looks at it, you can say, “Ball! I am rolling the ball! Here comes the ball!”

Simple narration: Talk in simple language about what you see your toddler doing. This brings meaning to their actions.

Reinforce names: Practice using the names of important people. Make a photo album of simple pictures and flip through it with your child, pointing to people’s faces as you say only their names.

Repeat games: Play a game with a repetitive phrase and pause before you say the last word. For instance, during a game of peekaboo, while hiding your face, draw out the first two syllables of the word, “Peeekaaaa…” and wait for your baby to respond with a sound. Then, say “boo!” as you uncover your smiling face. Or, build a tower with simple blocks that your baby can knock down. As you build it, you can say, “Up, up, up, up.” Then, when they knock it down, you can say, “dowwwnnn.”

Language development at 2 years old

Your toddler is expanding their vocabulary and learning to put words together during this phase of development—meaning they’re more likely to be able to express their needs and wants through language. When you hear “Mo nana,” you’ll know they’re asking for more banana. This is also a fun stage as your toddler starts to mimic gestures that go along with songs or rhymes, like “Itsy Bitsy Spider” or “Wheels on the Bus.”

During this stage of language development, your toddler may:

  • Point to things in a book in response to a simple question, like “Where is the moon?” (15 to 24 months)
  • Put two words together as their vocabulary grows, like “More milk” (18 to 24 months)
  • Use several gestures in addition to waving and pointing (15 to 24 months)
  • “Sing” or use gestures to familiar rhymes and songs (12 to 24 months)
  • Ask “what that” or “that?” while they point to things in the environment (18 to 30 months)
  • Say more than 2 words, with 1 action word, like “Doggie run.” (24 to 30 months)
  • Say words like I, me, you, or we (20 to 30 months)
  • Say at least 50 words (20 to 30 months)
  • Talk with you in conversation using at least two back-and-forth exchanges (30 to 36 months)
  • Say their first name when asked (24 to 36 months)
  • Ask who, what, where, and why questions, like “Where is mommy/daddy?” Usually what and where come before why (24 to 36 months)
  • Say what action is happening in a picture when asked, like running, eating, or playing (24 to 36 months)
  • Talk well enough for others to understand, most of the time (24 to 36 months)

Ways to support your 2-year-old’s language development:

Expand on your toddler’s words: For example, if your toddler says a single word (like their name) and taps his chest or lifts his arms, you might expand that to two words and continue the thought: “You want to go up!” Also try modeling a questioning intonation, so if your child says “Milk” you say, “More milk?” 

Repeat and add on: Try the same strategy for your toddler’s two- and three-word utterances— repeat back the words, add another, and hypothesize their intent. 

Repeat what your toddler’s saying and focus on detail words. In video: Drop & Match Dot Catcher from The Helper Play Kit

Focus on detail words: Continue to emphasize adjectives, prepositions, pronouns, and verbs as you talk to your child. “Oooh, the washcloth is so wet. Drip, drip, drop. Squeeze it!”

Sing together: Singing songs together can be a fun way to expand your toddler’s vocabulary. “Old McDonald” is a great choice for the opportunity to name animals and use animal sounds, but there are many others!  

Go on a sound walk: Invite your child to listen for sounds as you explore your neighborhood together. As you’re walking, ask them what they hear, and listen with them while they identify the sounds around them. Tell them what you hear: “I hear a bird chirping; I hear a car engine.” 

RELATED: Try a sound walk (and these 3 other activities) to boost your child’s language skills

Should you correct your toddler’s pronunciation?

As your toddler learns to speak, they may make adorable mistakes, like calling blocks “bocks” or trucks “ducks.” These types of mispronunciations are rarely cause for concern at this age. Simply restate the word a few times as you continue to talk, which allows your toddler to hear the correct sounds and watch your mouth move. For example, if your toddler says “nana” instead of “banana,” you could say, “Do you want a banana? Bananas are delicious.” Your toddler may keep saying “nana” for a while as they learn how to put together all the syllables. But once their mouth and mind sync up, you’ll hear “banana” instead. 

Resist the urge to imitate those cute mispronunciations if you can—your toddler’s brain hones in on repetition, so they’ll pick up on patterns of mispronunciation. Imitating their sweet mistakes is tempting, but it may inadvertently reinforce them. Imitating your toddler could also embarrass or frustrate them. Because your toddler hears more sounds than they can say, they may already know their pronunciation is “wrong” or think they are saying the word clearly. 

RELATED: Why not to correct your toddler’s speech—and what to do instead

When do children start talking in sentences?

Generally, children start talking in three-word sentences around 24 to 30 months of age. For example, they may say things like, “Me want ball.” You can help support your child’s use of full sentences through modeling. Modeling language is a powerful tool, especially in these early years. For example, if your child points to a baby and says “ba,” you might say, “Baby! You see a baby.”  

At this stage, they probably won’t use personal pronouns correctly yet. The correct use of pronouns like “I” can develop as early as 27 months but it may not be until your child’s third birthday that they consistently use them. You can encourage full words and sentences through your daily interactions with your toddler. One way to model correct usage of pronouns is to repeat a sentence or phrase back to your child like this: if they say “me want book,” you can say “Oh, you want to read a book? I want to read a book, too. Let’s choose one.”

Language development at 3 years old

Your 3-year-old may be becoming quite an engaging conversational partner. They may have a vocabulary of 300 to 1,000 words and probably have a lot of questions to ask. At this age, who, what, where, or why questions become very popular. This is the stage when the inevitable questions like, “Why is the sky blue,” or “Why is dirt brown” start to emerge. Interacting with you through these question-and-answer sessions, even if you don’t know the answer, helps propel their vocabulary and language development.

During this stage of language development, your child may:

  • Talk with you in conversation using at least two back-and-forth exchanges (30 to 36 months)
  • Ask who, what, where, and why questions, like “Where is mommy/daddy?” Usually what and where come before why (24 to 36 months)
  • Say what action is happening in a picture when asked, like running, eating, or playing (24 to 36 months)
  • Say their first name when asked (24 to 36 months)
  • Talk well enough for others to understand, 75% of the time (30 to 36 months), correctly using the following word sounds by 36 months: b, p, d, m, n, w, h
  • Sing parts or phrases of familiar songs (37 to 39 months)
  • Be able to recite the alphabet (37 to 39 months)
  • Identify missing parts of a favorite book when you read (3.5 to 4 years)
  • Use pronouns such as he, she, and they (3.5 to 4 years)
  • Use past tense by adding ‘ed’ to most verbs (3.5 to 4 years)
  • Identify missing parts of a favorite book when you read (3.5 to 4 years)
Encourage your child to ask simple questions and engage in back-and-forth interaction.

Ways to support your 3-year-old’s language development:

Focus on prepositions: At age 3, your child is working on understanding and using words like under, over, next to, or behind, so use these prepositions in speaking with them: “Your boots are under the table.” Opposites can also help strengthen your child’s understanding of what these kinds of words mean: Please put your book in the basket and take your ball out of the basket,” or “The ceiling is over your head and the floor is under your feet.”

Model correct language: Correcting your child when they use the wrong word or mispronounce a word is reflexive, but try modeling the correct language instead. This is especially helpful for pronouns, which can be tricky for toddlers. For example, if your child says, “Me want to go outside,” you can respond, “Oh, you want to go outside? I want to go outside, too.”

Encourage storytelling and pretend play: You may check on your child in the living room and find them talking to someone—only no one is there. If you can remain unnoticed, you may be lucky enough to hear the context for their story. They may be going through a bedtime ritual with their doll or giving their stuffed bear medicine for an earache. You can encourage this kind of narration by rotating playthings into your child’s environment that inspire storytelling and pretend. Props like a doctor’s kit, firefighter costume, or pots and pans can be an entry point for this kind of creative language play.

Encourage verbal confidence: Between the ages of 2 and 5 years old, many children experience times where they just can’t seem to get their words out. There may be interruptions in the smoothness of their speech or they may stumble over phrases. This is very common. At this age, your child’s sentences are becoming complex, but their thoughts and ideas are even more complex. Your child might speak smoothly, most of the time, but then struggle when they’re overtired, excited, or feel rushed.

You can nurture your child’s verbal skills by asking open-ended questions about things that fascinate them. Engaging in conversation together, even if you have to wait for them to get their words out, will nurture their confidence in speaking.

Developmental concerns with talking 

Every child develops at their own pace. The age guidelines offered here are based on averages of thousands of children, so your child may not follow them exactly. 

In terms of language development, it’s important to consider three main elements: 

1. receptive language (understanding what is being said)
2. pragmatic (or social) language
3. expressive language (the ability to communicate and express thoughts, needs, and emotions) 

Considering all three provides a fuller picture of your child’s progress. Here are some skills to watch for:

  • Babbling or making various sound combinations (4 to 8 months)
  • Following the gaze of a communication partner/joint attention (4 to 12 months) 
  • Anticipating and participating in age-appropriate play (5 to 12 months)
  • Pointing, waving, gesturing (9 to 12 months)
  • Communicating needs using sounds, gestures, or words (9 to 12 months)
  • Responding to basic requests/following one-step directions (12 months)
  • Attempting first words (12 to 15 months)

If you have concerns about your child’s language skills, you can review them with their clinician at any wellness visit. 

Posted in: 11 - 12 Months, 13 - 15 Months, Language & Communication, Language Development, Speech & Language

Meet the Experts

Learn more about the Lovevery child development experts who created this story.

Rachel Coley, MS, OT/L
Rachel Coley is a pediatric occupational therapist and child development expert, and founder of CanDo Kiddo.
Gabrielle Felman, MSEd, LCSW
Gabrielle Felman, founder of Felman Early Childhood Consulting, works with children from birth to age 7 to support social, emotional, and cognitive learning.
Giselle Tadros, PT
Dr. Giselle Tadros is the founder of In-Home Pediatric PT of NJ and Milk Matters PT. She has been helping babies and families in her community for over 20 years.
Amy Webb, PhD
Amy Webb, Associate Writer at Lovevery, is a child development scholar and researcher who holds a Doctorate in Human Development and Family Sciences.
Emily Newton, PhD
Emily Newton is a writer at Lovevery with over 20 years of experience as a researcher, professor, early childhood educator, and parent. She holds a PhD in Developmental Psychology and an MA in Child Development, with expertise in infant and toddler social, emotional, and socio-cognitive development.
Zachary Stuckleman, PhD
Zachary Stuckleman is a researcher and child development expert who holds a Doctorate in Developmental Psychology and is the Lead Content Researcher at Lovevery.

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