In your child’s first 3 years of life, they develop important language skills. Here’s how you can help them understand and learn new words.
A child’s communication skills begin to develop from infancy. During their first 12 months, babies learn how to express themselves. They explore the sounds of their native language and begin to babble—saying “aaaa” and then “bababa”—as practice. Little by little, they start to understand words, and then gradually start to talk.
Language development: 1 to 3 years
12 to 18 months
Talk about what your child is doing.
Toddlers generally say their first word between 12 and 16 months. Their initial vocabulary typically consists of names for familiar people and objects, but words linked to their routine, such as nap and bye-bye, are also common.
At this age, children can’t combine words to describe what they see or ask for what they want; therefore, one word can mean several things. For example, again is often used in several contexts.
During this period, children also understand many more words than they can say. They’re able to quickly learn the names of objects and actions that appear or occur in a familiar setting. They understand simple instructions, like “Come here.”
It’s common for children this age to not say new words every day. Once they know about 50 words, their vocabulary begins to grow more quickly. It’s also perfectly normal for them to pronounce words incorrectly.
In addition, 12-to-18-month-olds are able to recognize certain objects in books and point to them if prompted (e.g., “Where is the kitty?”).
18 to 24 months
Toddlers this age are continuing to build their vocabulary. When using more than one word to talk about people or objects, they begin to include actions (e.g., eating, drinking). Some sounds are still difficult for them to pronounce.
Once they’re able to say many words, they start to build two-word sentences, like “Daddy gone.” When trying to make slightly longer word combinations, they often omit the shorter, more difficult words (e.g., my, he, to).
At this age, it’s not uncommon for toddlers to point at images in books and name or comment on what they see.
2 to 3 years
Keep a journal of your child’s words to help you track their vocabulary growth and marvel at their progress!
From age 2 to 3, toddlers learn to organize words in a certain order to make sentences. When expressing themselves and asking questions, they’ll often form two- or three-word sentences, like “Daddy take ball” and “Where Mommy?” Those who know the child well can usually decipher these early sentences.
The number of words toddlers understand and say continues to increase rapidly during this period. It takes them less time to acquire a new word and integrate it into their vocabulary.
They’re also beginning to understand more abstract concepts. For example, they may know the difference between high and low or big and small. What’s more, they’re able to follow two-step instructions, like “Catch the ball and throw it back to me.”
At this stage, children are better able to follow simple stories in books. During storytime, they can also answer basic questions like “Where’s the mommy?”, “Who is that?”, or “What is the daddy doing?”
By the age of 3, children are able to correctly pronounce many speech sounds.
How to promote language development
Below are a few tips and activities to help you support your child’s language development.
1 to 2 years
- Engage with your child’s attempts to communicate. Toddlers make sounds, gesture, smile, and cry when they’re trying to tell you something.
- Verbalize what they’re trying to express. If they’re using words, repeat what they say and, when appropriate, show or offer them the object they’re referring to. For example, if they say “milk,” you can reply, “Yes, it’s milk!” and give them their cup. This tells them that you understand and value what they’re saying. Plus, your child will realize that their attempt to communication was successful.
- If you don’t understand your toddler, consider the context. For example, if they point to the window and say “outside,” see if there’s anything special outside or if they just want to go out.
Get on their level
- Help your child understand you by articulating clearly and speaking slowly. However, avoid baby talk (e.g., “din-din” instead of “dinner”) and incomplete sentences (e.g., “Mommy go store!”).
- When you’re at home or walking around your neighbourhood, name what you see (e.g., a tree, a bird, a dog). Name anything your toddler points at or shows interest in. Praise them if they repeat the word, but don’t force them to.
- Enrich your child’s vocabulary by adding to what they say. For instance, if they say “apple,” you could say, “Yes, it’s a good apple!”. Or, if they say “good apple,” you could reply with, “Yes, you’re eating a good apple!” By throwing a new word into the mix, you’re teaching your child how to use it.
- Build on what your child says. For instance, if they say “fat cat,” you could say, “Yes, it’s a big black cat. You like cats!” You’re showing them how to build a sentence using the words they know. Even though your toddler can’t do it themself yet, they’ll learn from your example. Plus, your interest will make your child feel heard and appreciated.
- Offer your child books with simple, colourful illustrations of objects, characters, or events that interest them. Name what you see in the illustrations or tell the story in your own words. This helps your toddler learn new vocabulary. Reading with your toddler is extremely valuable, but you can also leave books around the house for them to look at whenever they like.
2 to 3 years
- When your toddler talks, show that you’re interested and teach by example by repeating or adding to what they say.
- If you want to have a conversation with your toddler, start with what they’re doing. Instead of asking about their day at daycare, talk about the game they’re playing (e.g., “You’re building a big tower! Are you going to add more blocks?”).
If your child talks to themself while playing alone, listen closely. You may learn about what’s going inside their head and find things to talk about later.
- If you’re struggling to grasp what your toddler is saying, consider the context and focus on what you do understand. For example, if they say a short sentence but you only understand the word “cat,” you can say, “You’re talking about a cat! Where did you see it?”
- Talk to your toddler to help them build their vocabulary, understand the purpose of objects around them, and organize the world in their mind. For example, show them a toothbrush and say, “This is a toothbrush. You clean your teeth with a toothbrush.”
- Don’t focus on your child’s pronunciation—focus instead on what they’re trying to say. If they say a word incorrectly, don’t point out their mistake. Just repeat the word with proper pronunciation. For example, rather than saying, “We say rabbit, not babbit,” respond with “Yes, you’re right, that’s a very cute rabbit!”
- Look at family photos together and use simple phrases to describe them, such as, “This was Sarah’s birthday.” It’s a great way to help them better understand the world and their place in it. You can also focus on what the people in the photographs are doing to help your child learn new verbs.
- Read your toddler books that explore relatable topics (e.g., a birthday, potty training). Ask them questions about the story. Let them comment and ask you questions. This is the best way for them to develop their language skills.
Remember that all children learn their native language at their own pace. Some skills will develop early on, whereas others will appear later. If you’re concerned about any aspect of your child’s language development, talk to their doctor or contact the Ordre des orthophonistes et audiologistes du Québec
Things to keep in mind
A child usually starts talking between 12 and 16 months.
As their vocabulary grows, they begin to combine words. This often happens between 18 months and 2 years of age.
To support your child’s language development, engage with their attempts to communicate and repeat what they say correctly while introducing new words.
Scientific review: Marie-Ève Bergeron-Gaudin, M.Sc., Speech-Language Pathologist
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: December 2018
Sources and references
Bergeron-Gaudin, Marie-Ève. J’apprends à parler : le développement du langage de 0 à 5 ans. Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2014, 180 pp.
Brosseau-Lapré, Françoise, et al. “Une vue d’ensemble : les données probantes sur le développement phonologique des enfants francophones canadiens.” Canadian Journal of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, vol. 42, no. 1, 2018, pp. 1–19.
Daviault, Diane. L’émergence et le développement du langage chez l’enfant. Montreal, Chenelière Éducation, 2011, 256 pp.