Building on "baby talk" goes a long way toward building language skills.

By Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D.


Talking with babies from birth onward is a priceless gift that enriches their brain development, their ability to learn, and their power in using language. Young babies use throaty vocal sounds, called coos. Whenever a baby coos, respond with delighted smiles. Tell the baby you love talking with her as you "answer" these early vocalizations. By four to five months, babies combine consonants into clusters and experiment with new sounds (such as "dith") that are tough for a teacher to imitate!

Talk During Daily Routines. Keep talking with babies during daily routines. Diapering time offers a particularly wonderful talking opportunity. Your closeness to babies' faces at this time allows you to respond more accurately and with intimate enjoyment in small conversations. Tell each baby: "I love the way you are talking to me."

Turn Sounds into Meaningful Words. By six to eight months, babies combine a vowel and consonant together to produce sounds such as "pa," "ma," "la," "na," and "ba." When doubled, these sounds can become first words with your emphasis and help. Turn these sounds into baby words for favorite folks such as Papa or Mama. "Nana" refers to banana. Use "baba" to refer to blanket or bottle. In this way you give meaning to a baby's early sound-making efforts.

Be a Word Provider. "Holophrasis," or one-word speech, appears somewhere near the end of the first year. Labeling people and things now comes easier for babies. Give babies names for everything they show interest in. If a baby is hungry, promise her "num-num," an easy word for food she can learn to use herself. Label each toy, body part, article of clothing. Provide words to accompany babies' gestures. "You really like bouncing! Bounce, bounce, bounce!" Action words are harder for babies to learn, so use these words while babies are in motion. Teach "up" as they raise their arms to be picked up. Encourage babies to "roll a ball" and say the words happily as they do so. Some easy-to-teach action words are "wave bye-bye" and "clap hands" if the baby is making these motions.


Toddlers love to babble! They recite long strings of interesting syllables with many intonations. Although their voices sound as if they are telling you about interesting events or making demands, it is often hard to understand this kind of toddler talk. Be sure to appear genuinely interested. Say "Uh-huh!" and nod enthusiastically so your toddlers continue to talk with you.

Stretch Telegraphic Speech. By 24 months, toddlers usually begin to combine two and even three words into "telegraphic speech" ("want dat," "doggie dere," "my toy," "daddy fix," "no go home!"). The ability to give commands, express wishes, and form questions ("how you do dat?") appears prior to the third year.

Talk Lots at Mealtimes. Mealtimes are great times for talk. Serve meals family style so that toddlers can hear you talk about soup, carrots, noodles, and other tasty foods. They will soon join in referring to each food they want more of. "More noodle!" is a frequent request from a toddler who loves pasta. (Remember that toddler talk leaves out all the little words such as "the" or "an" that adults use.)

Stretch sentences by slightly expanding a toddler phrase. When you serve rainbow pasta for lunch, say: "You really love those noodles. Do you want a green noodle or a white one?" Toddlers will often vigorously respond, "g'een noodle." "R" is too difficult a sound to pronounce, but toddlers love having the power of language to tell you their choices.

Be Patient With Articulation Difficulties. Don't worry about the fact that your toddlers say "dar" to mean "car" or "star." Some sounds are very hard for little ones until they are four years of age. It is much more important to enjoy the pleasure of gabbing away with each other.

Be a Generous Word Giver. Label events and actions, flowers and animals, toys and clothes. If a toddler is now walking alone pretty well, exclaim admiringly, "You are walking! You must be so proud of yourself!" Naming reinforces what children are doing and empowers your toddlers.

Use Verbal Scaffolding. Promote talk by offering unfinished sentences and allowing toddlers to provide the last word. This verbal scaffolding provides prompts for toddlers to chime in. Try some of these phrases to help toddlers supply the missing words:

  • Mary had a little _.
  • Timmy is a little gray mouse. He lives in a little .
  • Baa, baa black sheep, have you any ?

Toddlers feel important as they provide the missing words.

Enrich Concepts as You Talk. If a toddler is working with a toy such as a stack set, be sure to use labels such as "tall" and "short." These "contrast" or "polar opposite" words help toddlers become aware of differences.

Tailor your talk to what you know about each child's abilities. Practice the use of language as a rich and integral accompaniment to play, to routine chores such as diapering, toileting, and to daily living experiences. Be proud of the priceless "talking power" you are giving your toddlers!

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Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D., a professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University, is the author of many books on infants and toddlers, including Behavior Guidance for Infants and Toddlers and, with H. Brophy, Talking With Your Baby: Family as the First School.