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How Young Children Understand Language Before They Can Talk


In our last several Newsletters, we have discussed the transition from infant to toddler. This change from infant to toddler occurs approximately from 1-3 years of age.

We suggested that three milestones are especially important in understanding toddlers: mobility, self-awareness, and language. In our October 2012 Newsletter, we explored the increase in mobility associated with toddlers. The November 2012 Newsletter examined the beginnings of self-awareness occurring in toddlerhood.

This month we will start a three-part discussion of the third and perhaps most important aspect of toddlerhood: language. In this current December 2012 Newsletter, we will focus on how young children understand language long before they can talk. In January 2013, we will explore what happens when toddlers begin to talk; and, in February 2014, we will consider the crucial integration of language and feelings and the power of translation.

Hearing and Understanding

When we talk about the importance of language in development, we almost automatically think in terms of when the child begins to speak. But long before your child speaks, she is listening – and understanding far more than we used to think.

During infancy, the baby and caretakers communicate through facial expressions and gestures and sounds. We described this process in detail in What Babies Say Before They Can Talk: The Nine Signals Infants Use to Express Their Feelings. All babies have a universal, inherited, built-in signaling system with which they both send and receive signals. This signaling is done especially through the facial expressions and vocalizations. These signals are called feelings – such as joy, surprise, anger, and fear.

At first, then, a child may gather meaning through your tone of voice, inflection, gestures and facial expressions. Studies have shown that soothing words and tones register differently to an infant than distressed and angry sounds or words. But it is also stunning to realize how quickly very young children understand the meaning of words themselves. From the earliest days of their lives, children are developing their vocabulary. At this young age, the child’s ability to understand words far outstrips her ability to speak words. This is one reason it makes good sense to talk a lot with very young children…they are learning words and meanings long before they can speak!

It is a thrill when parents realize how much a child is processing and learning before she utters her first word. Finally, they can talk to their children and be clearly understood. “Please bring your shoes to me so we can put them on”…and lo and behold the child delivers her sneakers. “Will you please pick up your trains off the floor so no one steps on them and breaks them?” And he picks up his trains. The child may not be able to speak yet, but he is accumulating an understanding of many, many words – far more than he will be able to put voice to for months and months.

So, a child is never too young to understand what’s going on (even if on a purely emotional level) and is never too young to talk to. But once you realize that, you can also ask yourself: What kind of talk? What words? To what end?

Almost any talking and words can be a useful learning experience for your child. But an especially useful strategy with your pre-verbal child is labeling her feelings with words. The payoff is terrific if words for feelings can be brought into the conversations at the earliest possible time. As we have explained previously, pre-verbal babies and infants use nine signals to express their needs, fears, feelings and desires. These signals (excitement, joy, surprise, distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust and dissmell) are communicated through facial expressions, vocalizations and gestures. Parents can help young children become aware of their feelings (and feel that the parents “get them”) by using the words for the nine signals whenever an opportunity presents itself. “You are excited about that glitter make-up!” “You felt a lot of fear when the dog ran up so fast.” “You were angry when I said no more cookies before dinner.”

Connecting Feeling to Words

Some research suggests that the parents’ capacity to link words and feelings is an important aspect of a good parent/child relationship and the healthy development of the child’s personality. Greg Lowder and his colleagues are psychoanalytic researchers from New York and California. Over the past several years, they have explored this issue in an intriguing set of studies. In 2007, these researchers eloquently summarized the work as follows: “Many factors come to bear on how successfully a mother will be able to manage the parenting experience. A primary factor may be her ability to connect her emotions to language. Her ability to do so, more or less successfully, will affect her capacity to regulate emotions as they arise, along with her ability to receive support from others by successfully communicating what she feels.”


Here’s an example of putting words to feelings before the child can talk. Say your infant daughter is crawling toward a toy and accidentally puts her hand on a sharp thumbtack. Her eyebrows will arch in the middle, the corners of her mouth will drop down, her chin will begin to quiver, and she may begin crying and then getting red in the face and howling. Upon seeing or hearing this you will probably come over, pick her up, say something like “Oh, sweetheart, I’m so sorry,” reassure her, hold her, and perhaps kiss her hand where it hurts.

What have you done here? You have correctly perceived that the thumbtack triggered your daughter’s distress, fear, and then possibly excessive distress and angry feelings. You responded by attending to the trigger of her pain, getting rid of the thumbtack, kissing the hurt hand, and comforting her.

In this instance, you have understood your daughter’s reactions – you have translated her facial expressions and cries into the feelings of distress, anger, and fear. This is translating. Many parents are able to do this instinctively – understand what feelings their baby is expressing through facial expressions and cries. Some parents are also aware of the existence of inborn feelings and are able to translate the expressions into words at the time: “Oh, dear, that hurt, didn’t it? I can see you are distressed and scared.”

Let’s look at another example. Your little boy is crawling on the floor and spots a small red car. He picks it up, looks at it intensely, his eyebrows a bit down and his mouth slightly open. Now he begins to play more actively with it, gurgling delightedly as he runs it back and forth along the floor. You realize he is interested in the little car, and he is getting excited as he plays with it. Technically, the affect of interest-to-excitement has been triggered – exactly what you want. You might even put it into words for him: “You sure are interested in that car – that’s great! You really are excited!”

This is the earliest kind of translating – moving from facial expressions and vocalizations into feelings. Later we will discuss another type of translating which is harder for many parents – going from the child’s words back to the feelings.


A child’s relationship to words and ability to use them is first nurtured while they are still unable to talk. Parents may find it hard to believe how much influence they have over their child’s healthy development at this stage. But just wait…let’s see what happens when the toddler begins to talk!

We’ll explore that next month!