Bi-Lingual Toddlers: Encouraging Language Development

I am continually amazed at the ability of babies and toddlers to absorb a second or third language. I shouldn’t be surprised since I share the facts with parents and best ways to expose their child to a second language. But still–I call it magic! Once again, I was at the home of a 19 month-old who is primarily hearing English, but has the opportunity to hear Spanish from an adult, 2-3 days a week. Little Maddie is raising one hand and saying, “mano,” and raising the other hand and saying, “hand.” She is showing that she knows that two words in different languages can represent the same thing. This knowledge that words actually stand for objects is an early metalinguistic skill, when someone can think and talk “about” language.Maddie was starting to “mix” English and Spanish words in her mini-conversations. This is typical of a child learning two languages and will begin to diminish as she gets fluent in both languages.Typically, children aren’t exposed to two languages equally. In Maddie’s case, she is hearing far more English than Spanish so she is speaking in two-word sentences in English and still using only single words in Spanish. Her Spanish will catch up as she logs more hours hearing it and using it. Maddie is showing an understanding that one adult represents Spanish and her mom represents English. She speaks Spanish to her adult friend and English to her mom. Children are able to separate situations and people by the language that they speak to them and therefore answer appropriately. If you’re exposing your child to a second language at an early age, or considering it, here are some advantages that are listed in the literature:

  • Higher capacity for learning the second language as teens or adults
  • Helps their minds expand linguistically in a way that gives them an educational advantage later
  • Deeper appreciation of language and how it words (metalinguistic skills)
  • Comprehend written language sooner than their peers who speak one language
  • Advantage of knowing 2 cultures and being able to speak to a wider range of people

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Learning Language: A Toddler’s First Words

Once again, I had a play session with a mom who told me that her child “didn’t have any words yet.” Her little Will was fifteen months old and typically at that age, children should have a few words that they are saying. I always encourage the parents to listen a little closer and usually they identify some words that their toddler is using.

There is a big variance in what children chose to say first. Unfortunately it isn’t usually “Mommy” which would sure make us moms feel really good! But first words are those that are meaningful to the child. One little girl said, “tickle” first because her mom played a tickle game with her that she loved. A little boy who loved his grandpa and visited him often at his car dealership said “car” first. First words are not going to be accurate in terms of their sounds, as a matter of fact they may not sound anything like the word, but for your child they represent that object or person. For example, “da” means more, “g” means dog, and “ish” is fish.

How can you tell if your child is truly saying a word?

A true word:

1. Must have meaning each time it is used. So each time your toddler points to the TV and says “do” for his Elmo DVD, it has the same meaning which can be “I want my Elmo DVD,” or “I want to watch my Elmo DVD.”

2. Shows your child’s intention to communicate. “do” is being used to communicate with you that he wants to see his Elmo DVD.

3. Is used flexibly in different contexts—home, school, or a playmate’s house. So if you are at home or at grandma’s house, your toddler would use “do” to communicate the Elmo DVD because “do” is a true word representing that object no matter where your child is.
4. Is a simple one or two syllable utterance that stands alone, with a pause after it
5. Is used in conversation with people.

6. Is determined by its usefulness in your child’s environment. First words are often objects, people or pets that are integral to your child’s daily activities such as dog, ball, juice, or cracker.

Listen closely and you will start to hear the differences in the utterances your child makes. Sure enough, the longer I played with little Will and his mom, who I referred to earlier, the more little words we heard. He rounded the corner and said “uice” in response to mom asking if he was hungry or wanted juice. When who told him not to go up the stairs he said something resembling “no.” Always reinforce your child’s attempts at words even though they might not sound correct. When he says “da” for cup, simply affirm him with “Yes, you want a CUP,” emphasizing the correct way to say the word he intended. This gives your child the correct model for him to imitate and internalize.

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Using Language When You Discipline Your Toddler

I had a “play on words” session with a mom of a sixteen-month-old today and she asked about discipline. She said she hasn’t changed the volume of her voice yet and mostly “re-directs” her son when he is doing something wrong such as going for the electrical outlets or the fireplace

I told her there is no reason to raise your voice because your tone can send the message. I was recently with a fifteen-month-old and his parents and I was amazed at their consistent and effective discipline with their little boy. When he started to do something dangerous they simply said, “No, sir” in a calm but firm voice. Now, mom is from the South which explains the gentile manners, but her quiet manner was very effective and consistent.

Here are some tips on using language to manage behavior when you have to discipline your toddler:


  1. Don’t overuse “no” but save it for issues of safety and disobedience. The word will become less effective if it is overused.

  1. Simply state your child’s name and “no” followed by a simple explanation such as, “Lily, no, the stove is hot.” Or “No, Sam, we don’t touch the fireplace, it burns.” Young children can’t comprehend a long explanation and it is better to have effectively related the concept of “no.” Since their attention span is short, they may go right back to the forbidden object, so you will need to repeat yourself. As your child’s understanding of language develops, she will begin to connect danger or “no” with the simple consequences that you have linked with your use of “no”: outlets—dangerous, fire—hot, stove—burn etc.

  1. Re-direct your child to something safe and interesting to play with. Offer a few choices and then join in her play, letting her decide what toy to play with.




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Speech and Language Delay in Toddlers

I often run across parents who are concerned about whether their toddler is delayed in language and should be evaluated. Many times I get calls when a child is around 15 months old. Recently a dad contacted me concerned that his 15-month-old Jack wasn’t saying any words yet.

I am not surprised that parents become alarmed at this age because this is just about when a child typically begins his “vocabulary explosion”. The second half of the second year is when children start to say all those wonderful rich words that they have been storing up in their minds!

Typically a child will say his first word around her first birthday, are saying 6-10 words by around 15 months and by 2 years of age they should have around 50 words and be putting two word together like “my truck” or “blue ball.” I advise parents to wait until about 18 months and if your child is not saying any words, speak to your pediatrician and consider contacting a speech pathologist for an evaluation. A good place to start is your Birth-3 Provider whose number you can get from your pediatrician. I know in the state of Connecticut their evaluation is free so it is helpful to get their professional opinion on your child’s language level. Many components are looked at, not just the number of words your child is saying. They will evaluate what your child understands, gestures, means she is using to communicate etc. If you are looking for a private speech pathologist you can log on to the ASHA (American Speech Hearing Association) website and find a professional in your area.

Do not panic. I see some 18-20 month-olds who look delayed and some indeed need intervention but others just need a “jump start” by giving parents suggestions and strategies on how to talk to their child to encourage language. (offering choices, modeling speech not asking too many questions etc.)

It is always best to go with your intuition. As parents you know your child the best. I am so impressed with the information parents give me, because they know their child. If you feel she is behind and should be checked then pursue it.










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Typical Language Development for Your Three-Year-Old

This week I was working with a child turning three soon and the mom asked me what was typical language development for a three-year old?  I shared the following with her.

By 3 years of age your child is likely to:

  • Be around 80% intelligible, still substituting and distorting some later developing consonants such as th, ch, sh, j, f, v, l, s and r
  • Understand about 900 words
  • Understand what it means to do something “later”
  • Listen to a 20 minute story
  • Understand the prepositions “in”, “on” and “under” and will follow directions using those words.
  • Follow a 3 step direction such as, “Get your shoes, put them on and come to the table.”
  • Answer simple “Who?” “Why?” “Where?” and “How Many?” questions
  •  Ask simple questions such as, “What’s that?”
  • Ask lots of questions to gain information as well as your attention!
  • Use “is” as in “The boy is running” and “The ball is blue”.
  • Use 4-5 word sentences, containing a number of grammatical errors
  • Use the pronouns “I, me, you and mine”
  • Describe interesting experiences in his recent past
  • Initiate a conversation starting with, “Hey Mommy or listen Mommy” and give a monologue with details about something interesting to him
  • Use speech to comment, “I can’t find my truck”, as well as express feelings, “I can’t fix it.”

Play is an important vehicle for expanding your child’s language. Take a puppet or “little people” figure and “talk” to the one in your child’s hand. Carry on a pretend conversation using people, animals or little figures. At first your child might not respond, but carry on the conversation yourself and he will eventually enter in. Through your play conversations you will be modeling questions, using prepositions, introducing new vocabulary,  and narrating your play. 

I have posted an article today on strategies for encouraging your three-year-old’s language which should be helpful.



































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Great Books for Your Baby

At around 3 months of age, babies can see most colors and are interested in looking at a book just like a toy. Bright colors against a contrasting background (especially white) attract their attention. Throw in a good dose of rhythm, rhyme and beat and you will fascinate them with your reading. Here are a few of my favorites to start out your library:

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? And Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear? By Bill Martin Jr and Eric Carle. I haven’t met a 3 month old who hasn’t listened intently to these stories, examining the bright colorful collages of each animal as I flipped the page.

Peek-a-Moo by Marie Torres Cimarusti. This big peek-a-boo book reveals the sound and inviting face of each barnyard animal as you turn down the flap.

Butterfly Kisses by Sandra Magsamen. The simple text and pictures grab your baby’s attention as bees buzz, birds sing and monkeys play. But, keep your eyes and ears open for a surprise visit by the butterfly finger puppet delivering a kiss and perhaps a tickle.

Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney. This is a wonderful bedtime tale of a little one and his parent declaring the immensity of their love for one another. The endearing illustrations tell the story too.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star by Rosemary Wells. Sing the lines of this nursery rhyme as you page through the heart-warming illustrations of a little bunny preparing for bed—bathing, getting on pajamas, having some warm milk and even gazing at the stars before hopping in bed.

Baby Talk by DK. We know that babies like to look at baby faces so play peek-a-boo with this book, revealing darling wee ones narrating the action with “yum, yum,” “hee, hee,” and “boo hoo.”

Moo, Baa, La La La by Sandra Boynton. Things are going well when the cow says “moo” and the sheep says “baa” but who said pigs can sing “la la la?” Sandra Boynton’s books have all the requisite beat, rhythm and rhyme to keep your baby’s interest.

Fuzzy Bee and Friends by Priddy Books. Here’s a soft book with lots of textures, wings to flip and legs to crawl. The text has some spunk too.

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Top Preschool Books to Stimulate Language

Here are some of my favorites, old and new for your preschooler to encourage language through a great story:

 The Great Fuzz Frenzy by Janet Stevens. Check out my review. Kids love this book for the zany antics of the prairie dogs with their fuzz and the wild vocabulary and comical alliteration.

 Clancy the Courageous Cow by Lachie Hume. This is a new book with a clever story about being different, discrimination, and grace.  There is lots to talk about as you encourage your child to predict what will happen, talk about feelings, solutions, and how to react to someone who is different.

 Amos and Boris by William Steig. This is a clever book about adventure, rescue, friendship, and sacrifice. It is packed with good vocabulary.  Try other books by this author.

 Picnic at Mudsock Meadow by Patricia Polacco. This isn’t just another Halloween book, but a clever story of competition, courage and finally friendship. The illustrations are magnificent with their detail and action. Lots of predictions can be made based on these beautiful drawings.

 Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs by Giles Andrede and Russel Ayto. This is every little boy’s dream, to uncover a pirate captain in a closet and set sail with him. Of course they encounter the ferocious pirate dinosaurs and a battle ensues. The illustrator has created beasts with “tonsils wobbling ferociously at the back of his throat” who have a whimsy about them who draw us in to a tale created in a little boy’s mind. Talk about what you would do if you met a pirate in the closet?

 I Wish I Were a Butterfly by James Howe is a lovely tale about self-esteem, listening to criticism, acceptance While the little cricket was wishing he was a butterfly, after the frog at the edge of the pond told him he was ugly, the ladybug wisely replies, “…you must learn to be content with what you are and not mind what a silly old frog tells you.”  Friendship finally brings acceptance. There are many themes to talk about with your child after reading this story that relate to her life—teasing, feelings, self-worth, friendship and acceptance.

 The Featherless Chicken by Chih-Yuan Chen. In this playful tale, a featherless chicken is trying to part of the gang of artfully adorned chickens. Finally when he acquires a costume of leaves, silverware and a fish can, he looks good enough to join the others. This is another story about fitting in, being transparent and having a roaring good time!After reading this book, it would be fun to make a collage costume for your own featherless chicken.

Edwina, The Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She was Extinct by Mo Willems. Loveable Edwina meets her match with the incorrigible Reginald who is trying to convince her she is extinct. This story is about winning over a bully with kindness. Talk about ways to show kindness to those who are nice and not nice to us. 

Chuck Lends a Paw and Funny Bunnies on the Run by Robert Quakenbush are full of  laugh-aloud consequences for the antics of bunnies and mice. You can use these books to ask questions like “Why did that happen?” since there is a reason for all the catastrophes in the stories! These are early readers but can also be used as read-alouds.

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Reading Tips for Toddlers

Today I had a “play on words” session with a 14 month-old and his mom and dad. I really like it when dads join the session because they ask great, thoughtful questions.

 We were talking about good books with a simple story line, exciting illustrations and flaps to keep a mobile toddler interested. I had shown Maisy Takes a Bath because it goes through the familiar routine of the evening bath. Dad asked if his son could relate his own bathtub to the one in the story. Good question.

It is a little early to make these connections although it is just the right time for Dad to make that link when he is talking about the book. Point to the tub in the book and say, “Hey, Maisy has a big white bathbub like yours. Your tub is upstairs. You even have a duck floating in your tub, just like Maisy. Making book-to-life and life-to book comments links books to your child’s experience and real world and back again.  Soon you might be reading about a duck and your toddler will jump off your lap to retrieve his duck. When he is 3 or 4 years old, he might have an experience at school or visiting the seashore and say, “Hey, that remkinds me of my story book!”








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How To Read to Your Baby

I spoke to a wonderful group of new moms at Greenwich Hospital today, whose babies were between 6 weeks and 3 months. When I asked them if they were reading to their babies, all but one mom (slightly guilt-ridden, but determined to start reading tonight to her baby!) said they were reading books to their babies. Several mentioned Goodnight Moon as being one book that their child maintained interest in. The amazing thing about Goodnight Moon is that is includes all combinations of sounds in the English language so your baby is exposed to a variety of sounds in words.

One mom said her baby likes Fancy Nancy! Not your typical “baby book”, Fancy Nancy is a picture book designed for children from about 3-6 years of age. Fancy Nancy loves everything glittery and feathery and is trying to convince her family, who has quite plain taste, to come over to the fancy side. The fact that this mom’s little two-month-old girl likes listening to an older picture book shows that exposing your baby to good literature can be fruitful. I like my moms to think outside the box. Certainly read bright, board books designed for babies to your child, but try an engaging longer story with exciting illustrations, and see if your baby will sit for part or the entire story. 

Here are some questions that came up today:

·      Is it okay that I am reading Dr. Seuss to my baby when some of the words make no sense and are made up words?

Sure, Dr. Seuss books were originally designed to be used for first readers, using a controlled number of words so a child could master them. The beat, rhythm, rhyme and whimsy in these books attract a child’s attention and surely entertain the adult reading them (which is a factor not to be ignored!).

Reading a few Dr. Seuss books as part of your book repertoire is fine. Children are attracted to silly sounding words like “sneetches” and “Zax”and it shows them that listening and language are fun.

·      How can I read to my baby and hold him at the same time?

·      One mother shared that she reads to her baby every time she nurses him, using her free hand to hold the book. He is hearing the story but not seeing the pictures. Another mom shared that she sits down leaning back on the bed or a support and sits her baby in her lap facing out and looking at the book. I walked in on my son while he was reading to his son, lying on the floor, with the baby belly up on his stomach holding the book in front of his face. Little Will had the advantage of hearing the story from his dad’s mouth as well as through his body! I also offered the suggestion of laying your baby in her seat, sitting in front of her, holding the book, so she can see your face as well as the book as you read. Today some of the babies went back and forth between looking at the pictures on the page and my face as I read Peek-a-Moo by Marie Torres Cimarusti.

·      Sometimes there are only a few words on the page so I just make up a story and don’t read the words. Is that okay?

Absolutely. As long as you are having an enjoyable experience with the book and feeding language to your baby it is beneficial. Certainly over time, babies love the repetition of a few books, giving them security, knowing what comes next. But, your child might like the illustrations on a certain page so you can linger and add more language to that page. Remember, this is to be a loving, positive experience so keep going as long as your child is interested and stop when his interest wanes.

·      My aunt gave my baby some old storybooks that I enjoyed as a child. Is it okay to read her these older stories like “Little Red Riding Hood”?

There is a generational benefit to reading stories that you enjoyed as a child and probably gives great pleasure to aunts and grandparents as they share stories linked to sweet memories of with their own children, now proud parents! This same effect can be seen with reading nursery rhymes. Although I am not a huge fan of some collections which include “cutting off their tail with a carving knife”, Parenting Magazine just did a review of a new collection minus these “creepy” old rhymes that is collected by Iona Ople and illustrated by one of my favorite children’s authors, Rosemary Wells, called Mother Goose’s Little Treasures.


































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Best Toddler Puzzles

I enjoy finding toys that  encourage a child’s language and then watch to see how kids interact with those toys. What toys encourage language development? Look for toys that have flexibility—ones that can be used in many different ways. They inspire your child to be creative and use his imagination.

 Something as simple as a puzzle should have more options than just placing pieces in the intended slot. “Chunky Puzzle Farm Animals”, “Safari Animals” and “Dinosaurs” by Melissa and Doug have thick enough pieces that the animals can “stand up”, move around, get a bite to eat or roam on the floor at a pretend zoo or farm. I hear far more language from a child as he pretends with the animals and lets them loose! I was working with a 2 year-old who loves the safari animals. He had them hiding “under” the table, “sliding” down the legs of the table, “nibbling” on some food and “swimming”. There is no end to the action your child can produce with the animals as you add a few props for pretend play like a barn or a truck to carry them.

 The “Vehicles” puzzle pieces include a three-car train, plane, bus, car, fire truck, ship and boat. The puzzle pieces can go for a sail on the sea, line up on the train track, fly overhead or race down the road with narrated sound effects. Now your child is naming the pieces as well as expanding his vocabulary through pretend play, using verbs, pronouns and prepositions.











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