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Small Talk

Newbie talkers have different styles

Two of my children's playlists of first words were heavy on the nouns: They caught on quickly to words like "ball," "dog," "cat," "book." The other two mixed in more active words, like "hi," "bye-bye," "no," "more," "gone-gone." In fact, speech-development researchers say there are two types of toddlers: noun lovers and noun leavers.

Those who use a lot of nouns have a "referential" style, using language to label their world. Often girls and firstborns, these noun lovers tend to have a more cautious verbal style and acquire speech earlier, says Masterson. They love games that involve naming, such as What's This? or Name the Body Part.

Noun leavers (who have an "expressive" style) use words to engage with people and things. They tend to jump into sentences sooner and are less cautious in their speech  -- they try new words without caring much about getting the pronunciation right. They enjoy games where they get to contribute, like saying "peekaboo!" or "wee wee wee" in "This Little Piggy."

Your role: Don't get too hung up on comparing your new talker's vocabulary with that of other babies you meet. Different first words simply indicate different routes to the same fluency. Will a social speaker grow up to be a social butterfly? No studies have correlated early speaking style to later personality. When a child's vocabulary hits 100 to 200 words (around 24 to 30 months), the style difference disappears.

So much is said with so few words
Even once a child seems to clearly call her father "Dada" or "Daddy," she may also call the mailman, the meter reader, and the guy next door "Daddy," too. The multi-purpose word is simply an ordinary stage of language development (called overextension) and usually shows up when toddlers are between 12 and 24 months. Your child does understand the difference between Daddy and Mailman Pete but doesn't yet possess all the words to verbalize those distinctions.

Toddlers work their limited vocabulary hard. Basically, your child's early words describe things and events in their immediate world, says Diane Paul, Ph.D., director of clinical issues in speech-language pathology for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. The same few words refer to existence (this), disappearance (gone), recurrence (more), action (go), location (here), possession (mine), and attribution (big). Take the words "Mommy go." Said when Mom's away, they can mean, "She's gone." When she's close by, "Mommy go" may mean "Go away" or "Let's go outside, Mom."

Your role: Pay attention to inflection and gestures to help decipher what your child wants. Offer up more words ("You want to go outside with Mommy"), but don't insist your toddler repeat them. Gradually he'll fill in more precise words. In fact, around 18 months, a toddler starts to learn as many as ten words a day.