When do toddlers start to speak in sentences?

Baby’s first (or first intentional!) word is an occasion – it’s exciting, it’s a landmark, it’s something to remember. Their first sentence comes with a different kind of anticipation – the kind that comes when single-word requests for “water!” “ball!” or so many children’s favorite, “more!” start to get old. Your second-grade teacher would be so proud of how excited you are to have more complex sentences in your home.

The short answer is that children usually start stringing together two or three words into sentences or phrases sometime around 2 and a half years old. Different children follow different speech patterns, though, and just like slow walkers who skip the toddling phase entirely to just stand up one day and start training for the nearest marathon, it’s impossible to tell whether a consistent winner of The Quiet Game is about to open up their mouth and wow you with a paragraph, or if they are going to slow-and-steady their way straight into kindergarten.

One of the other important things about that first two- or three-word sentence is that it’s often a sign that a child is on the edge of another huge leap forward in their language development. You think Baby is learning a lot now, just because they have gone from a non-verbal pile of adorable who wasn’t even sure you were the same person when you changed your hairstyle to the bright, curious, interesting person they are today? Well, you’re right, but the difference between the person they are now and the person they will be when they can share what they're thinking with you is going to be staggering, too, and that first two-word sentence, even if it’s as simple and potentially frustrating as “no night-night,” is where it starts.

How can I encourage them? 

Baby will start speaking in sentences when they are ready, but there are also ways that you can help them get ready, too.

  • Converse: A great way to help Baby be ready to speak in sentences is to give them plenty of space to try it out by starting up back-and-forth conversations about their life, surroundings, and the way they see the world. It doesn’t matter if they isn’t ready to hold up their side of the conversation just yet – as long as you give them the space to respond, and don’t get frustrated with them if they isn’t ready to talk back yet, “conversations”, even one-sided ones, are a great place to start.
  • Don’t step in too soon: It can be frustrating to see Baby struggling to communicate in ways that are as simple as the ABCs for you, but stepping in to finish what they are saying, instead of letting them try to find the words themself can frustrate their effort, and take away their motivation to figure out how to speak for themself.
  • Narrate your life: By far the most important ingredient for Baby’s readiness to communicate in words is exposure to language. Being exposed to more words gives them the chance to learn more vocabulary, learn to make connections between the words they know and the ones they doesn’t know yet, and just to recognize the patterns of their native language. It’s been proven that words spoken directly to babies have a much greater impact on their language development than words they just happen to be in the room to hear.

  • Bjorn Carey. “Stanford psychologist shows why talking to kids really matters.” Stanford News. Stanford University, February 13 2014. Web.

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