Helping toddlers to speak: Emerging Language

Helping toddlers to speak: Emerging Language

A growing number of parents view bilingualism as a laudable family goal. The reasons for this trend include a desire to provide children with academic and cognitive advantages, and to promote cross-cultural understanding and communication. Parents who don’t speak English usually hire tutors to ‘play-and-talk’ with their child. If you are lucky to work with very young learners, you should dive deeper into the topic of language development processes. 

In this article, we will focus on the emerging language that is the language development process in early childhood from 1 year to 3 years old. Of course, there are cases when this can take longer than that, considering the individual differences of the children and their medical conditions – autism, etc.

Among the predetermined things that a child should be able to do by the age of 2, you should consider: 

  • Reacting and carrying out instructions (come, go, sit down, give it to me, etc.),
  • Identify names of familiar objects, people, body parts,
  • Repeat what people say (short words, phrases),
  • Say short words and phrases on his/her own.

To put it simply, here we are talking about the ability of a child to listen to words and phrases, react, imitate what’s being said and build basic vocabulary.


All of you have come across a situation when children are imitating the words and phrases that people around them are using. We should remember that the brain of a child is like a sponge, it is ready to absorb information, but unlike the sponge, it doesn’t soak it immediately, it takes time, patience, resistance, and consistency of input.

You might also have heard that parents are using the child’s ‘own’ words and phrases to interact with him/her. Some scholars would argue against it, as it means that you are preventing the child from being exposed to the correct words. This might get in the way of quick language development. So, when a child is using ‘boo’ for ‘water’, do yourself a favour and confirm that it’s ‘water’. This will help to build a correct sound and object combination and make a valuable contribution in the emerging of the language.

Receptive Skills

Another step in the emerging language is the ability of a child to follow instructions and carry out commands. As an example, you might want the child to pick something up from the floor, or give you something, or not to touch something, etc.

All of this requires training and patience. One of the ways of doing this is demonstrating while speaking. Let’s say, the child should pick something up from the floor. How about you do it first and say “pick the ball up”, and then encourage the child to do so. It is a mixture of physical imitation and the ability to identify the command for that, but that’s a way to help the child develop language skills.

If you compare this to learning a foreign language, the process is almost identical, other than the fact that second language learners already have background knowledge of some sort. However, the demonstration stage and matching the concept with the instruction stage is the same.

Identifying Objects and Concepts

Another interesting stage in the emerging language is developing the ability of a child to identify a specific object and give a name to it. Let’s say you have 3 things on the table, a book, a cup, a bottle and you want your child to give you the cup. Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? Not from the child’s perspective, I bet :). 

This is a quite complicated process of singling out an object from the rest of the realia and giving a name to it. Once the child is able to do it, then we can confidently say that another stage of emerging language is complete.

Exercises that can help to achieve this stage are matching picture cards. There are tons of those available in all bookstores and are quite entertaining to play with. These are also very useful games to help to build vocabulary as the picture cards can start from familiar objects and things like ‘apple, banana’ and build up the challenge to ‘plane, tiger’, etc., thus teaching new words to the child.

All of the above-mentioned stages are those of single-word utterances. How about building sentences and asking for things? Well, that’s the next stage. Once the child feels pretty comfortable with some basic vocabulary and can tag them when seeing, you should move to introducing some grammar patterns and sentence formation. 

To begin with, you can start by simply using articles in front of the nouns – ‘a dog’, and the infinitive forms of the verbs – ‘to run’. Picture cards have not been cancelled here as well. You can hold up the card and say ‘a dog’, have the child repeat and move on to the next one.

The same is true with making sentences. The best way is to have the child repeat after you, thus to say, rely on receptive skills as you don’t have much of a chance at this point when the child doesn’t know the letters yet. However, picture cards can be used as always. You can start a sentence saying ‘This is a dog’ hold up the picture card and have the child repeat ‘This is a dog’. If you want to go on full teacher mode, you can elicit the word ‘dog’ and then have the child repeat the sentence.

In a word or two, the emerging language is a very interesting and magical stage. It’s a miracle to observe how a person learns from scratch simply by observing, repeating, and listening. Kind of makes us wonder why then learning a foreign language can sometimes be so hard on people. We might speak about this next time though.

Speaking activities are, obviously, essential for English language speaking classes. A lot of students join classes particularly to develop their communicative competence, become more fluent, versatile, adaptable, and confident communicators in English. However, designing speaking activities might be time-consuming and nerve-wracking for any teacher. We have prepared a memo with superb ready-made speaking tasks that will make your student talking. Download it here.

Helping toddlers to speak: Emerging Language

Armenuhi Seghbosyan

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