When Your Toddler Seems to Understand Everything, But Doesn’t Talk

If you’re watching your toddler’s communication development, waiting for them to start talking, you’re not alone. When our little ones say their first words and start to reveal more of their personalities, it’s an exciting phase of parenting.

What does it mean if your 2-year-old seems to understand what you say, but they aren’t talking yet? What if your 2-year-old seems to be “stuck” on babbling and isn’t moving on to using words? If this sounds like your toddler, read on to learn what might be happening and what you can do. 

Understanding your toddler’s language development

“Language” refers to the words we use and how we use them to share our thoughts, wants, and needs. Language includes:

  • Understanding what words mean

  • Knowing how to put words together into sentences

  • Knowing how to talk with other people in a variety of situations 

Some children’s receptive language skills may be more advanced than their expressive language skills. In this case, you may notice that your toddler understands and can nonverbally respond to what people say to them. For example, they may be able to follow directions like “Bring me your ball.” However, they may not be using words to communicate clearly.

To understand this more, we need to break down a few aspects of language development. Let’s take a look at what’s meant by expressive and receptive language.

In the broadest sense, receptive language is the comprehension of spoken language. As children grow and develop their communication skills, they must first be able to understand language in order to use it appropriately.

Expressive language refers to verbal communication (using words to speak), as well as nonverbal communication like gesturing or pointing. While all communication problems can be difficult for children, an expressive language disorder can be particularly frustrating. Often, children know exactly what they want to say, but it doesn't translate into a clear sentence once they begin talking.

Children can have a mixed receptive-expressive language disorder, where both types of language development are affected. But if your 2-year-old seems to do well with understanding words, such as responding when you tell them to show you their teddy bear, their receptive language skills are likely on track. If they aren’t talking much, you may be looking at an expressive language delay. 

Why is my 2-year-old babbling and not talking?

A child who understands everything but is only babbling, not talking, might also have delayed speech development.

Speech isn’t the same thing as language. Speech refers to how we say sounds and words. Speech includes:

  • How we make speech sounds using our mouth, lips, and tongue

  • Our voice, or how we use our vocal folds and breath to make sounds

  • Fluency, or the rhythm and smoothness of how we speak

If a 2-year-old is having trouble forming sounds into words, this could be a speech delay. They may seem to be stuck in the babbling stage, not progressing on to words. However, they may actually be trying to talk, but they’re not able to say those words clearly.

Speech and language milestones for 2-year-olds

While all kids develop at their own pace, there are certain skills to watch for at certain times in your toddler’s development. Let’s look at typical speech and language milestones for 2-year-olds. 

Expressive language milestones for 2-year-olds:
  • Using two-word phrases by around 24 months old

  • Having a spoken vocabulary of around 50 words

  • Engaging in short conversations

  • Beginning to use pronouns, such as me, my, mine

  • Beginning to communicate their feelings and emotions verbally, rather than physically

  • Possibly trying to answer simple questions

  • Making requests verbally

Speech milestones for 2-year-olds:

All children are different, but here’s a general rule of thumb: By the age of 24 months, familiar listeners, such as family members, should be able to understand about 50% of your child’s speech. 

Your child should also be learning new speech sounds during this time. Between the ages of 2 and 3, we expect a child to have mastered the /p/, /m/, /h/, /n/, /w/, and /b/ sounds. They should be close to mastering their /k/, /g/, /d/, /t/, and /ng/ sounds. They should also have started using the sounds /f/ and /y/.

You may still hear your child saying things like “nana” instead of “banana,” or “ca” for “cat,” dropping the final sound. However, these speech errors should go away by the time a child turns 3. If you aren't hearing improvement in your child’s speech as they get closer to 3 years old, it may be time to speak to a speech therapist. Let’s talk more about how to know if your toddler needs speech therapy.

How do you know if your 2-year-old needs a speech evaluation?

Sometimes toddlers need extra help to develop their speech and language skills. Communication milestones build on each other over time, much like a ladder. And when children don’t reach important communication milestones at the typical time, they’re often at risk of falling behind.

The earlier you can intervene, the more quickly your child will make progress. Here are some signs that your toddler may need speech therapy

  • At 24 months, monitor whether your child’s language seems limited. Are they using at least 50 words?

  • Are they combining their words into two-word phrases, such as “more milk” or “go up”?

  • Pay close attention to how well you can understand your child's language, or if they seem to be regressing in their development at all.  

If your child isn't meeting age-appropriate milestones or doesn’t seem to be speaking as much as other toddlers, don’t panic! What’s important is that you talk with your pediatrician and a qualified speech therapist. The speech therapist can perform an evaluation to see if your child qualifies for speech therapy

Because the age of 2 is such a critical year of learning, it’s important to give kids the support they need to express themselves and fully communicate their wants and needs. While it may be tempting to take a “wait and see” approach, research shows that early intervention benefits kids both socially and academically as they grow older. 

Expressable has speech-language pathologists across the country who are experienced in working with toddlers. Contact us today for a free consultation with a licensed speech therapist. By addressing speech or language delays early, it can reduce frustration for you and your child, and allow them to better learn and participate in the world around them.

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