How To Encourage Language Development In Toddlers

As any parent with a late talking child knows, it’s incredibly difficult to know if your son or daughter has a true speech delay, or if he or she simply needs another few months for speech to emerge. Randi Jacoby, a Speech-Language Pathologist who’s been in practice for over 30 years, is the expert with the answers. Speaking to a group of parents on Tuesday night at 92Y’s Parenting Center, she covered topics ranging from milestones in language development to bilingualism and pacifiers.

With an unflappable and reassuring manner, Jacoby explained that while milestones like sitting, crawling, or even walking should emerge within a small window to be considered within the normal range, language acquisition has a much wider time frame. A child can say his or her first words at any point from nine months to two years, and anywhere within that range is perfectly normal. By the time children are about five, most verbal gaps between individuals are closed, and Jacoby assured parents that teachers would be hard-pressed to guess which children were the early or late talkers.

A big believer in bilingualism, Jacoby rationalized that knowing more than one language gives the brain greater plasticity and more capacity for multi-tasking and executive functioning—the benefits of which last into old age. She cautioned that while learning two languages is beneficial, more than two often causes confusion and inhibits a child’s ability to master one language fully. Before you break out the foreign language videos for kids though, Jacoby noted that the learning that goes along with language comes directly from an interactive and engaging relationship. So for parents who are fluent in another language, start early and talk and sing often. Interestingly, whereas many believe that bilingual children should associate one language with one caregiver, Jacoby doesn’t think it’s problematic for one parent or caregiver to speak both languages to a child.

Going against the current trend, Jacoby is not a fan of teaching babies sign language. She believes that being able to communicate in such a way dulls a child’s motivation for learning to speak. Another behavior that can prohibit proper speech development is sucking on a pacifier. Jacoby encouraged parents to wean toddlers from pacifiers by the time they’re around 18 months old. Using a pacifier or sucking a bottle in the crib can change the way young mouths are formed.

So how can you encourage language development in preverbal babies and toddlers? Turn off your phones, stop texting, and talk to your child. Narrate your day. Read to your child—and, in particular, read books that have a repetitive sing-song cadence. Following the sequential nature of a story may not be as accessible to such young children, but a book like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, with its rhythm and pattern, is hugely beneficial. And instead of reading before bed when a child is exhausted, Jacoby recommends reading first thing in the morning, snuggling with your child, and having him or her watch your face and expressions as you read.

Sometimes, a child may need a little extra help in developing language skills. A free evaluation is always available through New York’s early intervention services. And with expert help from a Speech-Language Pathologist like Jacoby, your child is sure to enjoy learning process.

Randi Jacoby has been serving children with speech, language, voice, and learning disorders for over 20 years. A lecturer to both staff educators and parents at 92Y, she’s also a consultant to many private Manhattan Nursery School programs.  She can be contacted at 212-772-2238 and [email protected]

Tali Rosenblatt-Cohen is an Upper West Side mother of three.