Your Bilingual Toddler’s Speech: Ages One to Two

Welcome to my post on speech sounds in toddlers one to two years of age. I’ll go over what your toddlers speech sound development will look like at this age so that you know if your little one’s speech is on track. And, I also like to discuss some of the habits that children at this age can get into that can affect the development of their mouths including their jaws and their teeth so that we can avoid not only any impact on their speech but also on their teeth, because things like cavities in a toddler are not fun. I didn’t have a chance to go over recommendations yet in this video but I have a handout with some recommendations to work on your little one’s speech in the handout you can get below! In the next weeks, I’ll continue to talk more strategy especially if you’re a bilingual or multilingual parent or speech therapist. 

So, let’s start with some of those less satisfactory mouth habits that can start at a really early age. 

Bottles! Bottles in themselves are fine but the American Pediatric Association does suggest putting the bottle away by 18 months. As I said in an earlier video, I’m not opposed to bottle feeding and fed is best. However, all day bottle feeding is another story. 

All day bottle feeding- whether there’s formula, breast milk, or juice in bottles, all day bottle feeding can lead to tooth decay issues and it can’t be a choking hazard if your little one is laying down. So rather than grazing on the bottle all day, it’s best to have bottle feeding while sitting down at the table, during a set amount of time, and definitely avoid bottle feeding that stays with your child as they go to sleep. 

Pacifiers 

Most experts recommend to put the pacifier to bed by age one. And what I mean by put it to bed is not to use it during the day, throughout the day. It can be used while your child falls asleep, taking a nap or going to bed at night. But, the less it’s used during the day, the better. And the sooner you limit its use te better. Some studies do show that even as early as one year of age, constant use of the pacifier can change the shape of the palate- the roof of the mouth. And that can cause its own problems, one of which is very expensive orthodontia later on! 

Sippy cups

Sippy cups tends to keep mouth in unnatural position. The tongue comes forward open and the teeth have to bite around the spout. Sippy cups can also teach an incorrect swallow pattern. Straws on the other hand can be great for working on tongue retraction (the tongue going to the back of the mouth) and for helping toddlers to try new foods. Straws are fun and when using thicker liquid they can help to build up the inside muscles of the mouth.

Below, I’ll link below a great book that goes over feeding step by step for this age group and what to do if you have feeding concerns. 

Any concerns with feeding- such as your toddler being really slow to chew, keeping food pouched in cheek, or really picky eating should be addressed with a feeding specialist. This can be a speech therapist or occupational therapist who specializes in feeding.  Children with feeding issues are more likely to have delays in speech-language development. I believe, and so do the authors in the study, that this may be because of overlapping abilities between the motor systems for speaking and feeding. But, this isn’t my area of expertise and please look further into my book recommendations if you want to do a deeper dive!

Now, let’s go on to what to expect and how to know if your little one needs extra support!

Whether you’re speaking in one language or two, it’s normal that your one-year-old is doing a lot of babbling and only saying a few true words that you can understand. As they get closer to two, you’ll hear and understand more of the words that they’re saying. This is called Intelligibility- not to be confused with intelligence. But intelligibility is talking about how much we understand a child’s speech. We assume that parents will understand roughly 25% of what your two year old says. There may be a lot of babbling sounds in there and your child may be mixing both languages and that is very normal. Are you a multilingual family? Then it’s possible your little one is saying some words in Mandarin and some words in Vietnamese. Check in with your partner and see how much of their speech you understand. I have had parents who sent their toddlers to daycare that was in a different language say that a few months after starting daycare, they didn’t understand their child as much. Well, it turns out their toddler was starting to say some words in the language spoken at daycare!

Just a side note that research shows that a toddler begins to discriminate who speaks which language by as early as two years of age and can then use that language with that speaker(1). However, if your child has a lot more words in one language than the other, then it’s still very normal that they’ll borrow words from one language. Your child might still code mix at this age and say things like, Want manzana as they may not have the vocabulary yet in each language. But, they also begin to realize when Russian speaking grandmother understands certain words when she speaks with her in Russian and Spanish speaking grandmother understands words when speaking in Spanish, and she’ll try to change her language accordingly. 

So, what are the easiest words for your toddler to play with, repeat, and imitate?

Animal sounds, exclamatory words, and ambient sounds are the easiest for your little one to repeat.

Remember these are the easiest sounds for your child to develop.

And in so many different languages, there are nursery rhymes with animal sounds. These are really good sounds to focus on. In English we have songs like Old MacDonald where your toddler can fill in the blanks of “moo moo” here and a “moo moo there.” I’d love to know what songs you have in your home language that your toddler can sing along with. 

Your one-year-old may be playing with many different sounds but will probably mostly be producing sounds in the front of the mouth but as they get closer to two, you may hear some of those back sounds as well- like the /g/ in gato or the /c/ in cat. Your will also play with different vocal sounds. Now there is a little bit of variety of what sounds your child should say depending on which languages your child speaks but I have heard that at around 18 months of age, a child in English should have at least four consonant sounds and four vowel sounds. 

What if my child is bilingual? Will they have less consonant and vowel sounds?

Although I wasn’t able to find any research for this question specifically, we know that the ability to produce speech sounds comes from exposure and we know that bilingual children have less exposure in each language because they’re hearing each language for less time than a monolingual child. I have mentioned before this isn’t a problem but I’ll say it again: this isn’t problematic.  I think it’s very safe to assume that your bilingual child will have at least four different consonant sounds and a good handful of vowel sounds by 18 months of age and that amount will continue to increase as they get to two years of age. It seems that development of these sounds is based on how easy these sounds are to say and how often they come up in the language.

For bilingual children, there is something known as positive transfer which is when certain skills around speech production occur at a younger age in bilingual children than monolingual children. And why would this be? Well, each language has its own set of structure for how sounds are produced- what sounds are allowed in that language and in which order. And, when you look at two different languages, say English and Spanish, we hear that not only are the words different, but the way the sounds that form these words are different. You don’t ever hear words ending in the /m/ sound in Spanish, like bomb. And in English, we don’t usually hear words end in /a/ like the word bomba in Spanish. So toddlers and children who are learning these two languages begin to hear the differences between these languages which gives them more awareness of how sounds are coming together in words. This awareness is called phonological awareness! 

But, can there be any type of slower speech sound awareness because of bilingualism? Yes, but again, don’t worry. So long as there is continual practice and a language enriched environment in all languages, your little one will be just fine. There is a concept known as negative transfer. Negative transfer simply means that there are cases when learning two languages can result in slightly lower accuracy in sounds. I’ll get into this more when we talk about children who are three years of age and older because we expect to understand more of what a child this age will say and so it’s more noticeable the amount of errors. However, for a toddler who is between one to two years of age, we expect to hear them playing with sounds, we expect them to be noisy,  we expect them to try to say what you’ve said with a lot of really cute errors along the way, we expect them to have a handful of different sounds and a good amount of vowel sounds which may be a combination of both languages, if they’ve been exposed to both languages by this age.

Your child may have some consonant sounds in each language and some vowel sounds in each language, but again, I think a good rule of thumb is that your child has these four to five consonant sounds, total, and five plus vowel sounds total by 18 months of age. If your eighteen month old or two year old only has two or three consonants they’re saying, they have a really hard time imitating simple words like papa, mama, mine, they can’t say words with more than one syllables, and they are very quiet, then this may be a sign it’s time to seek out help! This isn’t due to them being bilingual, and it’s a good idea to look into this further!

We expect not to understand most of what a child who is one to two years says. We expect to understand about 25% of what they say! Very normal!  

So, let’s go over two activities you can do right now to help play with the kind of sounds that your child can imitate easily. The more practice the better!

Play with animal sounds during daily routines– like in the bathtub bring in a few animals, if you eat animal crackers make the sounds of each animal. You don’t need to say, repeat after me! You just say what you want them to say with a really fun, animated voice and let them imitate you. 

Other sounds that are easier for a child to imitate are exclamatory sounds like wow, oh no, yum, ouchie!

Adding these types of words to play can really help your child want to say them back with you. Because you’re playing and having fun!

For some more, easy activities to practice your little one’s speech, GET MY HANDOUT RIGHT HERE!

Diane Bahr’s Book, Nobody Ever Told Me (or My Mother) That!

And, Feed Your Baby Right.

Melanie Pottock’s Book, Raising a Happy, Healthy Eater.

**I am an affiliate with Bookshop.org and do receive a small percentage of any items should you buy them through my affiliate link.

In next week’s video, I’ll talk about what you can do to support your toddler’s speech ages two to three and in later weeks, we’ll talk about speech therapy in multiple languages and how to work on your bilingual child’s speech, especially if there is a concern around delayed speech.