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How to Speak to Toddlers

Toddlerisms: How Toddlers Reinvent the Language

My younger daughter is approaching 3 years. She is a three-foot, 32-pound force of language and emotions. Three is an age, if I remember our first iteration, that makes me nervous. It's the age they realize you can't make them do anything.

Right now, her main tactic for avoiding bedtime is to hide, which means to crouch face down in the middle of the floor, as if no one can possibly see her. Three is also the age in which language becomes a new tool, a thing to wield, and this may involve a lot of shouting. It also makes for great family entertainment. When 3-year-olds get the hang of talking, it's hard to stop them. It's also an insight into their growing mind as they narrate what sounds like an inner monologue but consists of objects not typically associated with one another, like leaves and chocolate, or kittens and oranges. "What is she saying?" Is very commonly said around the house, which is now morphing into, "What is she talking about?"

The important thing, to her, is talking. Talking means that others are listening. One of her main motivations for speaking is to contradict her older sister, and her other primary goal is to prevent her sister from getting a word in edgewise. The conjunction "and" has become very useful for hanging on to her speaker role. She likes to start off with "I want . . . " followed by many, many "ands." She has developed expertise in fighting over what can't easily be contested. When her sister says, "I'm hungry," she shouts, "NO, I'm hungry!" As if her parents would forget she was hungry. When her sister says, "I want to watch TV," she says, "NO, I want to watch the TV!" It's cute.

Despite starting most of her phrases with "NO," she has a very special command of language, which involves mixing sounds and syllables with a softness her older sibling didn't have. There must be a biologically advantageous cuteness that toddlers wield, I think, to encourage adults to constantly want to squeeze them, but also to talk to them. Sometimes, I talk to her simply to hear her version of the word "chocolate," which starts with a "ts" sound, like "tslocket," and to hear her say "tablet," which sounds like "tlabet." Sometimes, we don't know what she's saying, and other times, I'm fairly sure she's saying made-up words just for the pleasure of speaking. And sometimes I think she lives in a different world than we do, in which objects have names that only she can give them.

In other cases, I'm simply missing the reference. "Scarf lady," I have learned, is from a TV show she watches with her sister. Ding-a-Ling refers to a book they read at school, though none of us have quite grasped the story. If I correct her phrasing of the song "Four Little Ducks" by saying, "It's 'over the hills and far away,'" she gets very upset and says, "NO, 'FARM ADAY.'" Or "FOUR MORE DAYS!" Maybe it's stupid to correct a toddler, when their language is just so good. Here are a few things she says that we enjoy hearing over and over. And over and over.

"I need space. Give me space!"
"No way!"
"And I was so sad" (said with very sad face)
"Skick and skicker" instead of "stick and sticker"
"Polka bots"
"Leg-ins" for "leggings"
"I scared hold me!"
"Dipey" for daddy, followed by gleeful cackle
"Kiss me"
"Will you cuddle with me?"

Image Source: The Women's Project / Lauri Levenfeld
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