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Decoding Toddler Talk

Dear Dr. Debbie,
We need help decoding our toddler’s talk. Our two-year old babbles to us like we understand everything she says. Sometimes a three-word sentence comes out clear as a bell. Lately she is coming up with sounds that she thinks we should understand but between my husband and me, and even with her big brother making guesses, we don’t always know what she wants. Sometimes she can point to it, but other times, she tries and tries and gives up. Fortunately, she’s forgiving and just moves on with her life.

How can we get better with communication?
Say What?

Dear SW,
Your relationship began with your having to anticipate her needs, or at least quickly respond to her cries, since she’s too young to meet most of her needs by herself. With the discovery that she has a mind of her own, but knowing she is still too little to scramble an egg for herself, she and you must develop a good system of communication.
You have to admire the patience of a child who knows exactly what she wants while her grown-ups (and benevolent big brother) are clueless despite numerous attempts to make out her meaning.

Language Repetition and Consistency

She’s working on capturing and repeating sounds all day long so take advantage of those
Teachable Moments when she’s motivated to learn how to make the sounds for what she wants. The best way to help her with oral language skills is to speak clearly in very short sentences.

Often a two-year old will repeat what you said, especially if it’s only a few syllables. You might ask, “Do you want scrambled eggs for breakfast?” as a whole sentence, but then show her the pan and the egg carton and ask again, “Scrambled eggs?” If this is a regular option each morning, she’ll soon be repeating something like “scamba-deggs” and you’re on your way to having a working signal.

True mastery will be seen when she starts the conversation by asking you about “scamba-deggs” even before you get to the kitchen. If you’ve been paying attention you’ll know exactly what this means.

Context Helps

It’s easier to decode early speech when a child is talking about objects at hand. For example, your daughter might ask for a “banka” because she’s pretending to put her doll down for a nap.

Again, use short sentences to repeat the word clearly several times. “Here’s something you can use for a blanket.” “That’s a cozy blanket.” “That’s a good blanket for your baby’s nap.”
When my long-ago toddler repeatedly told me “saucey” we were already in the kitchen so I
started opening cabinets. She pointed to the refrigerator. I took out the cranberry juice (looking for the applesauce) and that seemed to be the correct item. However, the very next day, “saucey” got us to the refrigerator, but no, it was the orange juice she wanted this time.

The mystery word she was using wasn’t identifying the food item, instead she was identifying her state of being: “thirsty”. She must’ve caught these two syllables from natural conversation she had been hearing among her family members. Drinks were much easier for her to get after this. When she told me she was “saucey” I knew to offer up drinks until I got the one that was on her mind.

Food is an important topic of communication since a toddler’s appetite is nearly constant. She’s in a period of steady growth and near-perpetual movement. When she has in mind a particular food she’s likely to already be hungry (or saucey), so you don’t have much time to figure out what she’s hungry for before she gets hangry. While she’s happily eating (or drinking), you can use the time in the kitchen to name the food items she sees, paying close attention to her attempts to imitate you.

Language Team

Luckily, you’re not alone in this decoding challenge. Make it family affair. Daddy and big
brother can contribute their success in making out her special way of expressing things. Post a list (on the refrigerator for handy reference) so that the decoding team can add to it and refer to it when needed. For example “mash-ee” has become my granddaughter’s pronunciation of macaroni and cheese. It saves time and frustration when this valuable information is shared among all those needing to satisfy her appetite.

Alternative Language Symbols

Verbal language is only one system of communication available to your family. American Sign Language is an easy means to having clear signals between little ones and their caregivers. You can quickly pick up simple hand shapes and movements from online dictionaries such as Baby Sign Language and Signing Time.

There are books on using sign language with babies in Anne Arundel County Public Libraries.

Some of the books are designed to be used as a read-aloud, for you and your little one to learn the signs together as you look at the pictures. Dawn Babb Prochovnic
has a series of board books that teach signs about animals, vehicles, colors, seasons, and of course food.

With focused conversations with your toddler about what she is doing, consistent repetition of important words and phrases, attention to the sounds she is using, and expanding your shared vocabulary with some hand signals, your frustrations with language will be minimal and short- lived. There is a natural drive to communicate.

by Dr. Debbie
Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist www.drdebbiewood.com and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum www.theccm.org.

The museum is open with online reservations https://www.theccm.org/event-details/plan-your- visit-today-2 or call: 410-990-1993.

Dr. Wood is presenting a three-part parenting series on guiding the behavior of young children on Monday evenings, July 11-25, 7-9 pm, on Zoom. https://www.theccm.org/event-details/parenting-childcare-educator-workshops-1 Childcare professionals can earn MSDE-approved certificates for participating.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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