By Katie McPherson
For many parents, some of the sweetest memories of their children are the funny words they used as toddlers. If you’re parenting a tiny tot right now, you know how cute their own little language can be. But if you’re wondering whether or not you should you correct your toddler’s language, you might be surprised to learn that child speech experts would actually rather you didn’t. Instead, they want you to be a good language role model.
Elin Schwarz, MS, CCC/SLP, speech-language pathologist at Wolfson Children’s Hospital of Jacksonville, told Romper in an interview that toddlers aren’t expected to speak perfectly. Without correcting them, parents can simply be good speech role models.
“Toddlers use simple language to express themselves,” says Schwarz. “It’s our job as parents to help them learn more ‘adult-like’ speech. You shouldn’t necessarily correct your toddler’s speech, but rather expand on what they’ve said. For example, if your toddler says, ‘Baby eat,’ you could say, ‘Yes, the baby is eating.’”
And since toddler’s don’t develop the ability to pronounce all sounds in the English language right away, it’s OK if they can’t say some words like Merriam-Webster would like. M’s are a lot easier than Z’s, you know?
“Acknowledge what your toddler said but avoid telling them that they said something wrong,” said Nicole Well, a speech therapist at CHOC Children’s, in an interview with Romper. “Instead, model words correctly for them. Some sounds they try to make may be pronounced incorrectly due to age-appropriate articulation errors.”
While letting your toddler use their own version of words is fine, correcting them can actually prevent further development. That’s why Jen Burstein, MA, CCC/SLP, manager the speech-language pathology program at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, never recommends discouraging your child’s speech.
“Toddlers are not supposed to have mastered all sounds. In fact, at age 2, we only expect to understand approximately 50 percent of everything a child says. Correcting them too much can make them just not feel good about their communication. You’re not going to damage your kids by being playful and cute, ever. It really is about encouraging kids to want to communicate, and reinforcing that back and forth interaction. The content is almost secondary to that,” Burstein says.
There are plenty of things parents can do at home to help their child with language development, says Schwarz. These include practicing active listening with your toddler and then responding to what he or she says, using variety of vocabulary, reading together, limiting screen time, and taking them to interact with other toddlers. When reading, Burstein recommends really getting your little one into the story. Not only is it more fun, but it’s good for them.
“The most important point is to read to your child and engage then in the story, in the pictures, and in turning the page. Repetitive books are a great place to start. If you Google ‘repetitive books’ you will find many resources. Particular favorites of mine are Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, or anything by Eric Carle,” she says. “The repetitive theme allows the child to easily anticipate the next words. As you read the story over and over (as children will demand), you begin to hesitate to see if the child will fill in the repetitive word or phrase.”
She also suggests interacting with your child naturally. Instead of questioning them on what they know, listen to what they know, and expand upon it.
“Physically get down to their level and be very playful,” Burstein says. “Avoid that performance demand: ‘What’s your name? What color is this?’ If your child says ‘bubbles,’ you say, ‘Want bubbles? Let’s blow bubbles. Let’s pop bubbles.’ Model natural two- and three-word statements with the word they produced.”
Of course, every child will hit their milestones at different times, because every child is different. Burstein says there are some signs your child’s speech may need to be evaluated by a doctor or speech expert, so just be on the lookout for those. Otherwise, let them be little.
“We don’t worry about pronunciation before age 3, unless it’s something really unusual like hearing no consonants and only vowels. In that case, I’d say get a hearing test, because vowels are easier to hear than consonant sounds, which can be quieter. By 18 to 20 months we want them to have a handful of words; there’s no magic number. We want some first words but we don’t care how accurate they are, as long as ‘doddy’ is always in reference to the doggy. Consistency is more important than accuracy of the sounds,” she says.
“If you’re concerned, ask your child’s pediatrician if a speech evaluation is necessary,” says Well. “If your toddler is enrolled in preschool, the teacher should be another great resource for noticing developmental inconsistencies.”