Decoding Toddler Speak: What They’re Saying (and Not Saying) and What They’re Meaning (and Not Meaning)

Let’s preface this article with the fact that there is really no “normal” in the toddler world. When we look at developmental milestones, the context of the whole child is always the first and foremost thing we see. The other thing about toddlers is that for the immense brain development that’s happening, it’s mostly about relational concepts. Translation? Precision isn’t their forte (hence my daughter proudly pronouncing herself “Tella” when her name is in fact, “Stella”; interestingly, not every “st” combination produces the same effect- I’ll cover what’s going on here below!). Put another way, they are looking at the forests of their lives and missing quite a few of the trees. They’ll usually come back to the trees they skip later when their minds gain stronger focus! 

Below, we’ll outline first some concerns to alleviate any potential sources of stress while you’re watching and wondering what in the heck your toddler is doing and why there’s such strong variation between/among toddlers and how they talk. After that, we’ll get into more of the fun stuff and some building blocks to put together (mentally) with your little ones! 

Saying “w” instead of “r” or “v”. 

This is super common and there’s a whole litany of letter substitutions your child may make! These happen mostly in children under 4. The biggest recommendation from speech pathologists is to practice with enthusiasm and confidence.

Combined with a finding from researchers at Arizona State University in 2018 that children learned more words when their living situations were predictable, a picture starts to emerge. Your toddler will be more likely not only to learn more words but to zero in on pronunciations with routine practice, in a routine environment. Practice makes perfect!

If you can, engage your toddler with many different “speakers” in their lives so they have the chance to practice regularly with many people. Extended family is good for this task! But so are neighbors or friends you see on a regular basis; encourage your toddler to say hello and have their own conversations with those people. 

Not saying a whole lot of anything. 

Before your worries send you reeling about “speech delays”, as long as you and your pediatrician have ruled out hearing loss or autism, bear in mind that personality and overall learning patterns are a huge part of what’s going on with your toddler.

Some children, just like some adults, are more verbal. Others learn and are more interested visually. Others who may not speak much can sign hundreds of words. Others are  physically active and need to spend a lot of time and energy doing activities like dancing, running, swimming, etc. before their minds are at that sweet spot of being settled but not tired and focused.

Some children, again just like adults, have quieter personalities and prefer to listen more than they speak. Without going into all of the crazy details, remember that there is really only one acknowledged type of verbal  communication- language- and there are up to 14 types of nonverbal communications  (eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, posture/body orientation, body language, space and distance, proximity, para-linguistic, humor, touch, silence, personal  appearance, symbol, and visual communication).

If you’re interested in explanations (and really cool graphics) check out this bit from EduNote and familiarize yourself with your toddler’s nonverbal communication patterns! You’ll likely find that they are eerily similar to your own! 

Are you hearing what they DO say? 

This is a follow up to the second point, but also important for very verbal children. First to follow up- just take note of what they do say and when. After a few weeks you’ll have a great idea of how your toddler is putting together their world with their unique  linguistic expression! If you’re still thinking there’s delays, you’ll have a few week’s worth of a timeline to discuss with a speech therapist and/or your child’s pediatrician. 

Zeroing in on emotions. 

Toddlers have a knack for zeroing in on emotional words/associations for experiences.  This can be used to bolster their vocabulary- when they observe or experience an  emotion is one of the best times to put words to the observation or experience. It may be, as pointed out by those at Zero to Three, that parents can be hesitant or afraid to talk about emotions that they perceive as negative or intense (usually because they  don’t want to do anything to escalate the child’s emotions so they go for a distract  method), but it actually is best for a child’s development to learn from emotions and  emotional experiences.

Remember, emotions are neither good nor bad, they are a result of things that are going on. What children will most certainly remember is how those around them acted and reacted in times of intense emotion. Knowing this, you can use language as a place for your toddler to learn what their emotions are, and you can show them that language is a really effective tool they have to express themselves when they are confused, upset, etc. And don’t limit it to the negative times; when your child is happy, shout “Hooray”, celebrate their joy, and they’ll realize they can “talk themselves into” positive emotions! My own daughter often wakes up in the morning exclaiming  “Happy day! Morning sun!” And I give her as many more associations as I can- “Feeling  good! Wake up. Beautiful girl. Ready for fun! Time to play.” etc. In this way, she looks  forward to waking up in the morning and learns a lot of different ways to express how she feels when she wakes up happy. 

Repetition- and lots of it! 

Do you hear your toddler repeating the same phrase over and over? Some of that could  be tied to #4- the emotional connection! And more specifically, they’re looking to connect with the feelings of familiarity and comfort. You’ll notice lots of repetitive  actions and demands coming from your toddler- watching the same films, wanting to sing the same songs, or wanting to hear the same bedtime stories.

Also, in the same  sense that you get a sense of pride when you do something well, your toddler enjoys  being able to say things well. They get the same feelings of pride when they use  repetition to learn what/how to say things! A couple riffs on the repetition you can use  to cultivate some new skills are alliteration and rhyming. Try these when your toddler is chattering, not attempting to ask you a question or achieve a result.

When they are  running around in the backyard saying “Outside” say “outside, offside, down slide, pounce ride, found tide”- things that don’t necessarily make sense but are alliterative/ rhyming. This flexes some big neural creative muscles and sometimes are conversation starters. It also encourages your child to grow their vocabulary in a really fun way that transcends boundaries.

There are plenty of years to learn how to construct proper sentences; for now, the sounds and identification of items or association with different actions is far more relevant, so have fun! 

Social Keys to the Communication Kingdom 

This is a big one for toddlers! Throughout infancy, a child will be almost nonstop observing. As they move into toddlerhood where their brains begin an expansion explosion, they start to implement what they’ve learned based on social context. This is why their environment(s) and primary caretaker(s) play the most vital role in development- toddlerhood is the time where children express and mirror back with uncanny ability what they have observed for roughly two years prior.

This doesn’t mean that their patterns are set in stone; far from it! It means that you have the chance to see exactly what’s going on in your own communication patterns and it gives you a few years to “troubleshoot”. More importantly, you can support your toddler. Knowing that they are likely to mirror back to you what they see from you, you can talk more (or less!), change the content of what you talk about to things you’d like to hear them say, and adjust your responses to situations (one of our favorites is adjusting areas where you would usually be frustrated into something silly/playful; this can be achieved without too much effort by picturing how you would like your toddler to respond and choosing that exact response in yourself). It won’t take much time at all for them to catch on; it’s basically a game. 

The long and the short of having a toddler is that they grow at different rates and learn at different times. It is always best practice to talk to your child’s pediatrician and any specialists, as well as other parents, as you go. You may be surprised to find out the wide range of what is considered normal, and the more you can have fun with learning, the quicker time passes and each milestone flies by, just like they did when your toddler was an infant.