Toddler Speech and Language Development

toddler's solving puzzle on floor

Toddler speech and language development is critical, as it enables a child to communicate his inner thoughts, ideas and emotions. Language can be defined as a communication system comprised of sounds and letters (or gestures in the case of sign language). Speech is the ability to express language using sounds or gestures.

Learning a language is one of the most intricate forms of knowledge ever acquired. Despite this, all normal children are able to master speech and language during the early childhood years.

The Basics of Speech and Language Development

In order to master speech and language, toddlers must learn the following:

  • basic sounds (phonology)
  • how sounds are combined to form words (morphology)
  • how words are combined to form sentences (syntax)
  • the meaning of words and sentences (semantics)
  • how to use language in their social environment (pragmatics)

How Toddlers Learn Speech and Language

The first three years of life are the most intensive years for speech and language development. This is a time when the brain is still developing and maturing.

Speech and language skills are developed most effectively in an environment that provides plenty of sounds, sights, and exposure to speech from other people.

Toddlers generally learn language by observing others, and when reinforced. Toddlers are reinforced when they are praised for meaningful speech, and/or given what they want when they are speaking correctly.

Toddler Speech and Language Milestones

  • 12 months: capable of single words accompanied by tone and gestures, able to use non-verbal gestures (such as raising their arms when wanting to be picked up), have not yet mastered basic language functions (such as naming, questioning, requesting and demanding)
  • 18 months: most toddlers are capable of 8-10 words, around this time a vocabulary spurt may also occur where the toddler suddenly masters 30-50 words
  • 18-24 months: capable of combining two words or more to form a simple sentence
  • 24 months: toddlers are capable of approximately 186 words
  • 36 months: able to participate in a give-and-take conversation with another person, capable of sentences that are much longer and more grammatically complex, although still make many errors

Although most toddlers achieve developmental milestones at generally the same age, keep in mind that speech and language development will still vary from child to child.

How to Determine if a Toddler is Developing Normal Speech and Language Skills

Many parents may be concerned whether their toddler is developing normally. Referring to the developmental milestones may help to determine whether your child is suffering from a delayed speech and language problem.

To help determine whether your toddler’s speech and language skills are developing on schedule, refer to the National Institutes of Health interactive checklists.


Carol K. Sigelman and Elizabeth A. Rider. Life-Span Human Development. California: Wadsworth.

National Institutes of Health. “Speech and Language”

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