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Developmental milestone: Talking (age 2) Photo credit: / AnitaPatterson

Talking: What to expect when

Talking is inextricably linked to hearing and understanding speech. By listening to others, your child learns what words sound like and how to put a sentence together.

As a baby, she discovered first how to make sounds, then how to make those sounds into real words ("mama" and "dada" may have slipped out as early as 9 or 10 months). By the time she was a year old, she was trying earnestly to imitate the sounds around her — you probably heard her babbling away in a lingo that only she (and maybe another 1-year-old) could understand.

Now comes a period of extraordinary growth, as you watch your child go from speaking a few simple words to asking questions, giving directions, even telling stories she's made up.

What you'll hear

Since your child has a bigger vocabulary, she'll begin to experiment with modulation. She may yell when she means to speak normally and whisper when answering a question, but she'll soon find the appropriate volume.

She's also starting to get the hang of pronouns, such as "I," "you," and "me." Between ages 2 and 3, her working vocabulary will increase from 50 words to about 300. She'll string nouns and verbs together to form simple but complete sentences, such as "I go now."

She'll even get the hang of speaking about events that happened in the past, although she won't understand the concept of irregular verb forms and may come out with expressions such as "I runned" or "I swimmed."

You may smile, but this is actually quite an achievement. It means your child is picking up the basic rules of grammar — that you add an "-ed" to a word if it happened yesterday (or "yesterdaynight," as she might also say). Similarly, mice will be "mouses," and so on.

At this age, your child should also start answering simple questions, such as "who" and "where" questions. If she constantly echoes your question rather than answering it, this may be cause for concern and is worth mentioning to your child's doctor.

By the time she turns 3, your child will be a more sophisticated talker. She'll carry on a sustained conversation and adjust her tone, speech patterns, and vocabulary to fit the person she's talking to in a particular situation.

By now, other adults, including strangers, should be able to understand about half of everything she says, which means you'll have to do less translating. She'll even be a pro at saying her first and last name and her age, and will usually oblige when asked.

What you can do

Reading to your child is a great way to boost her language skills. Books help a child add words to her vocabulary, make sense of grammar, and link meanings to pictures, says Desmond Kelly, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician who works with children with learning and language difficulties at the All Kinds of Minds Institute in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Likewise, simply talking with your child helps (just be sure to speak normally to your child and avoid baby talk). Lots of parents find mealtimes and bedtime are a great chance for talking. These may be the only pauses in a busy day when you have a chance to chat with and really listen to your kids.

You also could try teaching your child simple hand signs. Babies communicate with gestures long before they can speak, and research suggests that signing with your baby may actually help her verbal language skills.

What to watch out for

You're the best gauge of your child's speech development. If by age 2 your child rarely attempts to speak or imitate others, doesn't react when you call her name out of her sight, or just seems totally uninterested in talking, she may have a speech, hearing, or developmental problem.

If by age 3 your child can't say vowels ("coo" instead of "cow") or if she talks using mostly vowels, omitting whole consonants ("a" for "cat"), she may need speech therapy (talk to your child's doctor to rule out a hearing problem first, though).

Other warning signs: She avoids eye contact, has difficulty naming most common household objects, or hasn't started to use two- or three-word phrases.

It's normal for a child to go through a phase of stuttering, especially when she's rapidly growing in her ability to express herself. The problem occurs when her brainpower outstrips her verbal dexterity. She's so excited to tell you what's on her mind that she sometimes can't get the words out easily.

But if she continues to stutter, or becomes worse to the point where she's tensing her jaw or grimacing in an effort to get the words out, be sure to talk to her doctor.

What's ahead

As your child grows, she'll become more of a chatterbox. You'll enjoy hearing about the projects she did at preschool, what her friend had for lunch, what she thinks about Cinderella's wicked stepmom, and anything else that pops into her mind. You may occasionally long for those peaceful days of speechlessness, but you'll never be bored.

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