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Talking a Blue Streak: Language and Your Child

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Between 30 and 36 months, your child will begin to construct sentences of four or five words. He'll also be able to tell stories and ask "what" and "where" questions. Of course, this ability comes amid a flurry of language development that started before his second birthday and will continue long after it. Your child is beginning to understand grammar and to use pronouns.

You Drive in Car

A 2- to 3-year-old may have a vocabulary of more than 300 hundred words, almost half the number of words adults use in everyday conversation. Children also understand more than they can say. This may cause mild frustration in your child and some verbal tumbling over words that won't come out fast enough to satisfy a preschooler's busy mind. This leads to what we call "developmental stuttering," a completely normal event unrelated to real stuttering that comes out in a small number of children close to school age. When this happens to your child, you can help her by trying to guess the word she's searching for and by not pressuring or embarrassing her.

Language Benchmarks

At this age, a child should be able to make herself mostly clear to a stranger about three-quarters of the time, unless she is tired or stressed. She's adding pronouns, using them in phrases such as "you go store" rather than saying "Mommy go store." And she has probably mastered the ability to follow simple two- or even three-part directions ("Go to your room and get your sweater and your teddy."). Asking and answering questions will happen regularly, and you may even hear words used to describe past or expected future events.

Language is so critical to learning that you'd hate to miss a delay. On the other hand, there is some variation in how and when children learn to express themselves.

Language Delay Myths

You might hear other parents, teachers, even some health care providers explain language delay using reasons that have no basis in science. Common ones are:

      • Birth order: "His brothers get him everything he wants so he doesn't have to talk." While younger children may show a slight delay in verbalizing, they are not delayed in understanding, and they are not delayed by a year. Small delays, not large ones, are explained by birth order.
      • Gender: "He's a boy, so what do you expect?" Girls often seem to be ahead of boys in speech, but the difference is subtle, a matter of weeks or months. Girls do talk more, but with only a small difference in the maturity of their language.
      • Bilingualism: "There are two languages being spoken at home, so of course she's delayed." After age 2, children are able to switch appropriately from one language to another in context, and they have a combined vocabulary that meets usual expectations. Bilingualism is not an explanation for expressive language delay after age 3.

Adapted from Encounters With Children: Pediatric Behavior and Development by Suzanne Dixon, M.D., and Martin T. Stein, M.D. (Mosby, 2000).


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