Talking to toddlers is very important; in fact, it’s the most important thing we can do when working to help a toddler’s language grow. How we talk to toddlers, though, is important, and recent research suggests that we should avoid telegraphic speech when talking to little ones.
“Telegraphic speech” occurs when we speak like we would in, well, a telegraph. In other words, we omit the “small” words that make a sentence grammatically correct and include only the important words - mainly nouns and verbs. Examples of telegraphic speech include: “put in box” “doggie run” or “mommy feed baby” (Venker & Stronach, 2017). In each of these utterances, the grammatical aspects of the sentence were left out.
Many people mistakenly believe that it’s easier for a child to imitate telegraphic speech, especially when kiddos are just starting to use two-word phrases. This is an easy assumption to make, because toddlers naturally use telegraphic speech when they are learning to talk. A child’s use of telegraphic speech is totally normal and is an important stage of language development. Around 18 months, children learn that they can create two-word phrases (mommy go; puppy drink; more milk); in doing so, they’ve begun to harness the true power of language. Because this move into two-word phrases is so important and very normal, adults might choose to use these phrases around children, hoping that the child will imitate those two-word phrases. However, recent research suggests that children are no more likely to imitate telegraphic speech than they are to imitate short, but grammatically correct, phrases and sentences (Bredin-Oja, S., & Fey, M., 2014).
It’s important for adults to avoid using telegraphic speech because children learn to use language by hearing language. One of their main jobs during early language development is to figure out the rules that apply to the language that they are learning. When, for example, do we put “the” before a noun and when do we put “a” before a noun? When do we put “ing” on a word instead of “ed” (walking vs. walked)? Every language has rules that dictate word order and “grammar,” and every new language learner must figure these rules out. Children do this by primarily by listening! So, the theory goes, if we use telegraphic speech, we’re taking away really important information that children need to learn the grammatical rules of language.
Recent research seems to support this theory, especially for children who struggle to learn language. One recent meta-analysis (a review of a bunch of studies) looked at parent-child interactions of children with language delays or disorders. The researchers found that parents who used more grammatically complex utterances with their children had children with more positive language outcomes (Sandback, & Yoder, 2016). This was especially true if the children had an autism spectrum disorder (Sandback, & Yoder, 2016; Venker et. al 2015).
Here’s the kicker, though. It is important to keep our language simple when talking to toddlers. The trick is in keeping our language simple, but grammatically correct. It’s not that we need to, or should, use full sentences with toddlers all the time. Instead, we can choose to either use single words, short phrases, or what are called grammatically simplified utterances. Here are some examples:
If a child sees a cat running outside:
DO use a single word: “cat”
Or, DO use a short but grammatically correct phrase: “nice cat”
Or, DO use short but grammatically correct sentences: “The cat is running.”
But DON’T use telegraphic speech: “cat run”
If a child points at his dad, eating breakfast:
DO use a single word: “daddy”
Or, DO use short but grammatically correct sentence: “Daddy’s eating”
Or, DO use a slightly longer but grammatically correct sentences: “Daddy’s eating breakfast”
But DON’T use telegraphic speech: “daddy eat breakfast”
It’s worth noting that not all experts in the field agree with this opinion (Van Kleet et al., 2010). It’s also really important to note that the research discussed above has been completed on children who struggle to learn language, not typically developing children. However, the rationale behind the recommendation to avoid use of telegraphic speech might still apply to typically developing children: children need to hear the grammatical aspects of language to learn those elements! So, whether your child is developing typically, is a late talker, or is a child who struggles more significantly with language learning, the suggestion would be the same: Talk to your toddler! Just not in toddler talk.
Becca Jarzynski, M.S., CCC-SLP is a pediatric speech-language pathologist and a Clinical Instructor at UW- Eau Claire. You can find more of her blog posts at www.talkingkids.org.
Bredin-Oja, S., & Fey, M. (2014). Children’s responses to telegraphic and grammatically complete prompts to imitate. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 23, 15–26.
Sandback, M., & Yoder, P. (2016). The Association Between Parental Mean Length of Utterances and Language Outcomes in Children with Disabilities: A Correlational Meta-Analysis. American Journal of Speech Language Pathology, (25): 240-251.
Van Kleet, A., Schwarz, A., Fey, M. Kaiser, A., Miller, J. & Weitzman, E. (2010) Should we use telegraphic or grammatical input in the early stages of language development with children who have language impairments? A meta-anlaysis of the research and expert opinion. American Journal of Speech Language Pathology, 19 (1): 3-21.
Venker, C., Bolt, D., Meyer, A., Sindberg., H. Ellis Weismer, S. Tager-Flusberg, H. (2015). Parent Telegraphic Speech Use and Spoken Language in Preschoolers With ASD. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, December 2015, Vol. 58, 1733-1746
Venker, C., Stronach, S. (2017). When Is Simplifed too….Simple? The ASHA Leader, 22, 42-47. Retrieved from: http://leader.pubs.asha.org/article.aspx?articleid=2595617