When I ask parents about what words their toddlers use, I often get an underestimate of the number and kind of words in their child’s vocabulary. It seems that many parents judge the amount of words in their kids’ expressive vocabulary by the clarity or preciseness of the word or how much/little it resembles the real thing. So if a child has a unique label for something that doesn’t resemble the real word, it is often written off as a “babble” or infant jargon.
When looking at infant and early toddler development, a “word” is defined as a specific sequence of sounds that always stands for the same thing, even if this string of sounds no where near resembles the word adults use. Of course, we must keep in mind developmental milestones for speech-sound production, so that the errors children are making when using their own label are still in keeping with the types of errors expected for their age.
So when my 17-month old always says “manos” to refer to “tomatoes,” “manos” is counted as a true word in her vocabulary. However, if she said “manos” frequently when babbling and says it as she points to several things, “manos” does not count as a word. Saying “manos” in place of a long, complicated word like tomatoes is perfectly fine for a toddler. We expect this kind of simplification to disappear a little later (see the Home Page to review developmental milestones for specific age ranges).
If you have concerns about the number and/or kinds of words your child is using, immediate identification is the first step to take. The “wait & see” approach is never recommended (nor should it be, as may be suggested by other health professionals). Even if a child has parents or siblings who were “late talkers,” waiting for improvement is not a risk worth taking, especially given the effects a language delay or deficit in the early years can have on learning and school success.