Speech Development: Keep Calm, Your Toddler Will Talk

Children learning to talk

Keep calm, you kid will talk.

I know it doesn’t feel that way. I know when faced with your kid’s precocious eighteen-month-old friend who is already stringing sentences together and using words with more syllables than you can manage after another-sleep deprived night, you will feel like you have failed.

This happens to all parents mono or multilingual, though those trying to raise multilingual kids are often actually subtly –or not so subtly– accused of bringing this on themselves. (Which, for the record, is supported by zero research. But who needs research these days?)

The nasty voices that never seem to go away will be haranguing you:

It’s your fault, you shouldn’t have gone back to work.

You should have spent more time describing every small detail like: watch mommy unscrew the cap on the tube of Preparation H – that’s hemorrhoid cream. Now squeeze the tube and apply a small amount to your index finger. See my index finger? And then gently rub…I’ll leave you wondering whether it’s for sagging eyes or sagging innards.

I shouldn’t have stuck her in front of Baby Einstein when I was showering, cooking, walking the dog –yes walking the dog but I assure you she was well strapped in.

You suck as a parent.

Did you really believe you could bring up a multilingual kid? It’s your fault, forget all the studies that say a kid will just develop speech when they are ready and listen to the uptight mother at the Pediatrician’s office who simply ‘knows’ your kid is still stuck on mama and bye-bye because you speak another language to her.

You should have read more, talked more, jumped up and down in a hoop while juggling pacifiers…

You are just innately stupid as you have long suspected and now that is manifesting itself in your offspring.

I am hoping your voices aren’t nearly as vitriolic as mine. I spent hours perusing websites, buying books on encouraging speech, learning sign language, and of course keeping a positive face in front of all of those wondering why my kid still barely uttered a few words.

And then it happened. She started talking. The floodgates opened and I sat, immersed in the tidal wave of words, elated –for about 48 hours before the  very awful thought crept into my mind”

My God, when is she ever going to stop? She is the Duracell bunny. She just keeps talking and talking and talking and talking and talking…

Careful what you wish for.

Keep calm, your kid will talk. And then they will never shut the f*%$ up.

This post was written for October’s Raising Multilingual Children Carnival, hosted by Discovering the World Through My Son’s Eyes. It will be going live Monday October 28th. Please check out all the wonderful submissions. Of course, had I been organized and realized this month had a specific topic, you’d also find my post there. Of course, you won’t.  Welcome to my world.

When self-doubt creeps in

I feel like this happens a lot. It doesn’t help that until recently I lived in an environment where I was surrounded by people doubting our decision to raise our kids trilingually especially given that our first daughter Pacifique was so slow to talk.

Language Timelines

I think it all started when all my friends’ babies were gurgling and laughing and cooing and just generally vocalizing as babies do. Pacifique was always quite a quiet child. If memories serves me correct she always seemed to be anywhere from 4-6++ months behind  some of her more precocious friends.

I need to quickly go off topic and rant here. This post was meant to be up ages ago but given my slightly obsessive nature, wanting correct facts and hoping to include some nice illustrations, I have wasted days trying to create lovely language timelines but there is much subtle variation in information out there coupled with the lemon computer I was sold by apple leaving me only google docs to try to work with – so as you may have guessed I gave up. And I think from now on, all rants embedded in any of my posts will be italicized so folks can just skip over knowing they have missed nothing of substance!

Keeping above rant in mind,  I am including a little chart I found on the Parents.com website. Given that it only goes up to a year, I’ll just list the rest myself . The text in blue refers to Pacifique’s development as I remember it.


At least I hope she did!

She did start some vowel sounds but closer to 4 months.

Her single syllables emerged closer to 7-8 months

Here is when she started stringing consonants and vowels together.

She just wasn’t a vocal baby though her ability to whine was phenomenal. She did this a lot and seemed frequently frustrated which continued through to 24 months and often caused me to doubt our choice of a tri lingual household.

By 11 – 14 months, I don’t think she spoke her first words yet – maybe mama, I can’t recall and am ashamed to say so. [Found copy of pediatric visit – turns out she said mama and papa at 9 months but nothing more after that until about 12-13 months.]  One reason we never worried is her comprehension in all three languages seemed good. We could give her basic instructions and she would follow them.

You may have read in a previous post that we decided to use sign language to cope with speech delay but annoyingly she also didn’t start to sign until late – I’d say after 12 months which was frustrating as we had hoped that would kick in earlier. It did end up being extremely useful down the line. And as everyone else’s first words were emerging, she was starting to learn to communicate with signs which was a big plus!

Year 1-2, compiled from the Baby Center website & The Child development Institute. For full breakdown see links.

By 12 months:  1 – 5 words meaningfully though some sources say that even if it isn’t a real word, if your child choses a made-up word  and consistently uses it to represent an object then that counts.

By 18 months:

  • Has vocabulary of approximately 5-20 words / in Pacifique’s case she probably only had about 3 maybe 4 spoken words tops but she did have a handful of signs.
  • Vocabulary made up chiefly of nouns – Yup
  • Some echolalia (repeating a word or phrase over and over) / She might repeat a word a lot but not in the same way I was seeing her friends do and definitely no phrases!
  • Much jargon with emotional content – Yup though really started at 18-20 months
  • Is able to follow simple commands – Yup
  • Common consonant sounds emerge such as t, d, n, w and h – Nope
  • When typical language explosion starts – Nope. This didn’t begin to occur until she was around 28-30 months

As I look back I think “ooohhhh it wasn’t so bad, I guess she wasn’t that far behind” but really looking at a bullet list doesn’t capture in any way the very real daily challenges of trying to understand your toddler. It can’t represent the fear, anguish and self-doubt that creeps in when your child is crying yet again, having a tantrum at your feet and so frustrated because you just don’t understand them; while their best friend is coming out with phrases like “Cleo go to market” & “Cleo want biscuit” or “Luca draw moon”, yours can only utter “mama” and “more”.

There were a few things that kept me going at this point. The first was the fact that her comprehension was clearly not an issue. We could give her relatively complex directions in all three languages and she seemed to have no problem understanding. The second were the anecdotes shared by friends and family about other children who were late to speak, many of which were from monolingual families. The thought that it is probably normal given three languages that there may be some delay. Caveat here – I actually think this is not necessarily the case as I’ve heard of bi and tri lingual kids speaking very early and mono lingual kids speaking late. I can already see a marked difference between my two daughters where Pacifique was pretty silent at 5 months and Claude is a non stop noise machine eager to vocalize at any given moment. The last was the knowledge that kids around the world grow up with several languages and that she wouldn’t be silent forever and if she was, I could always just stop and speak english to her if I really had to.

The next major milestones are listed as: By 24 months:

  • New word acquisition increasing exponentially – Yes relatively to what she had but a pittance compared to most of her compadres.
  • Can name a number of objects common to his surroundings – this is so vague.. what do they mean by it. I could answer both yes and no to this
  • Is able to use at least two prepositions, usually chosen from the following: in, on, under – Nope
  • Combines words into a short sentence-largely noun-verb combinations like “want cracker”.  No but more on this below…
  • Approximately 2/3 of what child says should be intelligible – Definitely NOT. We are only just got there around 28 – 30 months
  • Vocabulary of approximately 150-300 words
  • Rhythm and fluency often poor – fluency? what fluency!!??!!
  • Volume and pitch of voice not yet well-controlled – doesn’t this happen when they are about 21 or 22 years old?
  • Can use two pronouns correctly: I, me, you, although me and I are often confused – we haven’t even come close to pronouns at this stage.
  • My and mine are beginning to emerge – funny I can’t recall but I do know the concept was there. Maybe she never said mine but she definitely grabbed some of her toys and screamed bloody murder if some un-welcomed child tried to get their little paws on them.
  • Responds to such commands as “show me your eyes (nose, mouth, hair) – Yes. Yes yes yes.. wow I can say YES to one thing on this list! We worked really really hard on this one from about 10-11 months as I had some idea in my head that kids did it from 17 months.
  • At around 2, can sing simple tunes. –err you guessed it No. CAVEAT: Dr. said that her even mouthing incomprehensible noise along with me or musical play table singing alphabet would count. I think she was just being nice though
  • Overextend what they know so all colors are for instance “blue” or all animals are “dogs” – Yes but only once she started actually talking more so not  by 2 years of age.

Looking over this next set of milestones it dawns on me that perhaps this is when I should have started worrying but I didn’t. The reason is two-fold. Firstly, at her two-year check-up we were fortunate to have the amazing Dr. Philippa Gordon in Park Slope take a huge amount of time to discuss both language and Pacifique’s overwhelming tantrums. Pacifique had been having such massive tantrums at that point, I was starting to really PANIC, let alone doubt our choices over language. Of course that isn’t to say she wouldn’t have had these tantrums in a mono lingual household – we will never know. By 2 years many kids are making very basic sentences but technically the milestone is just putting 2 words together. Grammar is still undeveloped making for very charming sentence constructions but the key milestone is those magic two words  and 2 days before our visit to Dr. Gordon , Pacifique said “Bye Mama” – BINGO – two words! It may not seem like much but that is the Armstrong developmental leap!

I know I know, I said two-fold – the other revelation was that if we put down all the words she knew in ASL (American Sign Language), French, English and Spanish, she had about 35-50 words in each which again meant were just about ok. The Doctor assured us she wasn’t speech delayed but it often felt like this to us since many of her friends were rather precocious when it came to talking and were at this point uttering lengthy sentences – albeit often simply parroting their parents. Given that she had been late in meeting all the language milestones to date, we would re-assess in 6 months and consider speech therapy if needed.  Dr. Gordon also saved the day in advising on the tantrums and I think with my mind put to rest on language, I gained confidence and stopped worrying about them so much.

Today Pacifique is almost 33 months so past 2.5 but not yet 3. She has now met all her 24 month milestones. When? Well language for her advanced in leaps and bounds sometime between 26 & 30 months which sticks to my theory that she has always been about 4-6 months behind linguistically. Her language may not be as sophisticated as her friends still, but the big difference is that she can communicate in three languages! (I am not counting ASL as she knows words and phrases but no grammar). And her new vocabulary and emerging grammar is still improving at an ever accelerating pace.

And that self-doubt? Well this brings me back to why I originally started this post which was going to be about 5 lines. Sheesh! My latest linguistic lament and bout of self-doubt are because Pacifique has been showing a huge preference for English. I shouldn’t be surprised. Javier and I speak English and with the new baby born in September, she has been primarily cared for by Cherry our wonderful helper from the Philippines who has been a driving force in getting P to speak, count, sing, etc..

So why the doubt? I guess this time I am realizing as I write this that it is less doubt in the choice but more doubt in my ability to follow through. She had been speaking more and more French and suddenly started really favoring English. Spanish is now a distant third since her father is working 5-6 days a week often 16 hours a day. I repeat everything she says in English in French and then answer in French which is exhausting. Also I know I’ve been speaking more English for Cherry’s benefit – has that impeded P’s French? Probably. What if I can’t keep up – especially since I can’t see at the moment how we will afford to send her to the French school that is assuming I can ever potty train the kid. And I could go on.

But I won’t because ultimately I am committed to this and this too will pass and she will eventually speak more French.  In fact tonight with no French prodding from me she told me over in dinner in french that she wanted to wear her new strawberry shortcake shoes (yes they were a gift) and go with me, papa and Cherry for a hot air balloon ride outside. Did you know that the word for “hot air balloon” in French is Montgolfiere?

And when I put her to bed and turned out the light, just as I was closing her door I heard her say…. Bon soir.

Yes, tonight is a good night.