Your toddler’s secret langauge: Translating toddler-ese

It’s pretty tough, being a toddler – at no other point in your life are you expected to be fluent in a language that you’ve only been studying for a little over a year, for one thing. When a toddler says their first word, it can open the floodgates, but it can also be one step out of many, as they continue to experiment with sound and meaning. Even once they start understanding and responding to words, they might still be working on making sure the words they say in return sound the way they should.

This is where you come in – in your role as one of the people who knows Baby better than anyone else in the world, you probably have a better chance than most people of knowing exactly what that string of vowels Baby is calling out is supposed to mean, especially when they're wiggling their fingers like that, too.

If your new job as Baby-translator feels like it’s already starting to get old, don’t worry – they just need a little practice. They will be a fluent speaker before you know it!

How long will my role as Baby-translator last?

At this point, even you may not always know what Baby means, but by the time they are about 18 months old, there’s a good chance you’ll understand about 25% of their words. That’s just you, though – other adults in their life may still be a little in the dark. However, their ability to be understood should improve pretty steadily, and by the time they are 4 years old, pretty much everything they say should be understandable not just to you, but to people who have never even met Baby before.

Every child’s language development moves at its own pace, but if you’re still doing most of Baby’s interpreting for them by the time they are 3, it could be a sign that they are having trouble with communication. The cognitive ability to speak is just one part of your toddler’s communication – understanding words, and finding ways to make themself understood are more telling. Even if they are communicating well except for enunciation, though, it could be a sign that they're having trouble hearing, or that the muscles in their mouth are having trouble making the sounds they need.

If you’re concerned that your little one might have something that’s getting in the way of their ability to speak clearly, don’t hesitate to talk it through with their doctor. If the doctor is concerned, he or she may recommend an evaluation with a speech-language pathologist.

Responding to toddler-ese

Your response to toddler-ese is important – it’s a part of how they build their confidence in their growing communication, for one thing. When Baby says something to you, and you understand what they mean, and respond in a way that they can understand in return, it encourages them to keep trying new things as they learn to talk.

This doesn’t mean you can’t let out the occasional giggle when one of their word-experiments is a little too far outside the box, and no matter how much you practice, there’s a good chance they will occasionally say things you just can’t figure out. As a general rule, though, they will appreciate you taking these early communication attempts seriously, even if you have to do a little extra work to figure them out.

The other important part of your response to Baby’s more mumbley communication is that, by casually repeating their sentence back to them, you can model the right pronunciation of the words to them without making them feel self-conscious. This kind of mirroring also gives Baby the chance to correct you if your translation isn’t perfect – you may be the best Baby-translator around, but that doesn’t mean you won’t slip up now and then.

  • Peter Flipson Jr. “Measuring Intelligibility in Children: Why and How.” American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 2010. web.
  • Maura M. McLaughlin. “Speech and Language Delay in Children.” American Family Physician May 2011 Web. 83(10):1183-1188.
  • “One to Two Years.” American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 1997-2017. Web.

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