Language Development: Toddlers 1-2 Years Old

Oh the year of the first words! This year can be so exciting! Parents get to hear their child's first words. However, it can be quite stressful for some parents if their child is a late talker. Trust me, I know. My son is a late talker!!

Outlined below are language techniques to use with your child to encourage those first words and vocabulary growth. Have fun!

Before you get started, review the speech and language milestones for children 1-2 years old.

Speech & Language Milestones: 1-2 Years

Expressive Language
Speaking Skills

Receptive Language
Understanding Skills

  • Uses 30-50 words consistently 
  • 60% intelligible to unfamiliar listeners 
  • Imitates words easily 
  • Vocabulary increases each month 
  • Speaks with 2 word phrases 
  • Asks simple questions 
  • Points to body parts 
  • Follows simple directions 
  • Understands "no" 
  • Points to pictures in books 
  • Understands about 300 words
  • Listens to short stories

If you want a checklist to print and keep track of progress, please clink on the link: Toddler 1-2 Years Old Speech and Language Milestone Checklist

Toddler Language Learning Techniques
1-2 Years Old

Provide Adequate Wait Time

This technique is probably the most important one and the hardest for parents to actually do. Some may be thinking, Of course I wait for my child to respond. However, hardly any parent waits long enough. In a normal adult conversation, the wait time between communication partners is less than one second. We actually frequently interrupt each other. Children need a much longer wait time, sometimes up to at least 10 seconds.

To truly understand how long this is, stop and count to 10 SLOWLY! This is how long you should wait for your child to respond to a comment or question. For an adult, this takes PATIENCE! It may seem like a lifetime as you wait 10 seconds, but remember that your child is working hard to decode what he or she just heard, figure out how to respond, and then actually move their mouth and tongue to say the words. This takes time since your child is doing this for the first time with a lot of words!

There are times when, no matter how long you wait, your child is not going to say a word. You will start to recognize when your child is thinking and attempting to respond and when he or she has already moved on to the next thing. No matter if your child’s attention is still on you, provide this wait time. If your child doesn’t respond after 10 seconds, don’t ask the question again. Just model the correct answer and move on.

There are no games for this section. Just remember to wait!!

Language Simplified

First things first, let's review how to talk to your child. There are a few different thoughts on this and I will give you my two cents now. Some people believe that when talking to children, a parents needs to use complex, complicated language so the children learn such structures. However, I have a different way of thinking.

When talking with your child, use simple, age appropriate language. Toddlers cannot process long, complex sentences. Therefore, when presented with such complicated language, they do not learn nearly as much. Of course, you don’t want your language to be too simple either so your child isn’t exposed to new words and/or grammatical structures. This rule can be stressful for parents. They worry, “Am I doing too much?” or “Am I not doing enough?” To take the pressure off, I created “my rule of thumb.”

My rule of thumb: Match child’s level of language plus one

When possible, match your child’s level of language and then increase the complexity by one. For example, if your child is talking using 1 word phrases, speak to him or her using 2-3 word phrases. This way, your child is able to attend to the language input, and at the same time, learn 2 word phrases which is the next milestone.

Check Out Some Example Scripts:


Next on the list, your child has to be able to imitate. This is one of the most important early language skills. I might be as bold as to say it is the most important. A child has to be able to repeat sounds, words, actions, and social skills as he or she learns language.

However, if your child is not imitating or not imitating consistently, it is a little more complicated than simply saying "say....." to your child. A child may freeze up due to the pressure. Teaching your child how to imitate is not as easy as one would think.

I outlined some alternative techniques below. This section is divided into 3 parts: Not imitating at all, Imitating Gestures but Not words, Chooses Not to Imitate. Please click on the section that applies to your child.

Not imitating at all:

If your child is not able to imitate sounds or actions, start imitating your child! In this section, I will outline why and how. This is a good review for everyone!

Imitates gestures but not words:

If your child is able to imitate gestures but not yet words, you have a good foundation. With a few simple tricks, your child will start imitating words. Click above to get started!  

Imitates words but chooses not too:

Some children can imitate words and gestures, but choose not too. With a few modifications on how you, the parent, interact with your child, this can change too. Click the link above.

3 Strikes & You Win!

3 Strikes & You Win is a great technique to encourage your toddler to use words instead of pointing or grunting. This technique models a word multiple times without pressuring your child to say it. Some parents feel that this technique is too passive, but it is not. It actually encourages your child to use words instead of pointing or screaming without frustrating him or her or you!

How to do this technique:

First, say a word while holding your child’s desired object near your mouth. This brings your toddler’s attention to your mouth. You want your child’s attention on your mouth because he or she can watch how you say a word and this visual input is critical! After simply saying the name of the object, wait 2-3 seconds to see if your child will repeat it.

Second, if your child does not repeat the word, slowly bring the object toward him or her but still out of reach and say the word again. Wait 2-3 seconds for a response. If your child doesn’t respond, go to the third step. If your child starts to scream and break down, offer the object here.

Third, if your child still does not name the desired object but is calm, slowly bring the object to your child as you repeat the word for a 3rd time. After the third repetition, give the object to your child and praise him or her for patiently listening to you.

Games To Practice This Skill


Question Time

Ahhh…questions, this can be a tricky one. Too many questions can be very stressful for a little language learner, especially open-ended questions (i.e., “how are you?”). However, questions should not be avoided altogether either. They are a necessary part of communication and if used correctly, can expand your child’s vocabulary immensely. The key here is balance and asking questions in the correct manner.


In general, adults ask many, many questions. Too many really! The first step is to honestly pay attention to the quantity of questions you ask your child daily. I recommend making a tally every time you ask your child a question to get a true representation of the quantity. I guarantee you will be shocked!

Asking Questions the Correct Way:

When you do ask a question, offer a choice whenever possible. By offering a choice, your child learns what kind of response such a question requires. Additionally, your child has the opportunity to repeat words which is a great learning opportunity and/or vocabulary review. Also, by being able to answer a question, your child is reminded of the power of being able to communicate using words. The biggest motivation to starting to talk is the power and freedom it can create. Once children realize that they can get what they want faster by talking, they will start to talk more and more!

To properly use this technique, your child has to be able to imitate. If your child is not consistently imitating words, review the “imitation section” above.                                         

Games To Practice This Skill


When we sing, we activate the right side of our brain. When we speak, we activate the left side of our brain. For our late talkers, the speech center on the left side of the brain may not be developing as quickly as it should. By activating the right side of the brain through singing, it helps to compensate for any delays in the language centers in the left side of the brain.

There are 2 ways to approach singing as a language learning endeavor: Finger play songs and singing. For all approaches, it is important that you sing rather than just playing a children’s CD or Pandora.

Finger play songs, which are songs that have hand motions to accompany the lyrics, are the best way to reap the most benefits from singing time. Finger play songs activate the right side (singing) and the left side of the brain (lyrics) and the primary motor cortex (hand movements). With some late talkers, repeating words is difficult due to language difficulties and/or too much pressure. With singing, some of the pressure is taken off. Also, your child can still participate in the “singing” by performing the motor tasks of the hand movements. Once your child becomes comfortable and familiar with the motor tasks, speech is usually soon to follow. 

Favorite Finger Play Songs

I am not a very good singer...well my son may disagree but he is the only one :) So, I will not torture you and make you listen to me sing. Instead, I am providing links to YouTube videos where you can learn the lyrics and hand movements to some of my favorite finger play songs.  Below are links to YouTube videos.

Singing children’s songs or even made up songs throughout the day is also a great activity to help develop language. With my own child, I have a song for almost every daily activity including hand washing, getting ready for eating, getting ready for bed, marching, etc… At the moment, my toddler just smiles and dances while I sing, but he is starting to know which song is paired with which activity. This is a great receptive language (understanding) skill. Soon, I expect that he will sign along with me. If your child enjoys music, try making up some songs with words you are practicing. It is fun and beneficial!

› Toddler 1-2