Why Isn't My 20-month-old Talking Yet?

If your 20-month-old toddler isn't using more than a few words, you may be concerned. It may be confusing because he may seem to hear, understand, and follow instructions despite not speaking much, and there are no other signs of delayed development. One out of five children learn to talk and use a larger range of words later than other children of their age, but these are often temporary delays.

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), at 1 to 2 years of age, children should:

  • Say more words every month.
  • Use some one-word or two-word questions ("Where kitty?" "Go bye-bye?" "What's that?")
  • Put two words together ("more cookie," "no juice," "mommy book").
  • Use many different consonant sounds at the beginning of words.

There are a number of warning signs of toddler language development delay to look for when you are experiencing difficulty understanding or communicating with your toddler and are starting to worry if there might be a problem. It's a good idea to have a child's hearing tested to rule out any hearing problems which can affect how her speech develops.

Improving a Toddler's Speech Development

If what your child says (expressive language) is the only problem you note, and what she understands and her hearing are normal, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has a number of things you can do to help your child improve her speech development now and when she's older. One of the recommendations is to ask open-ended questions instead of yes / no questions:

For example, rather than asking, "Do you want milk? Do you want water?" ask, "Would you like a glass of milk or water?" Be sure to wait for the answer, and reinforce successful communication, "Thank you for telling me what you want, I will get you a glass of milk." 

This addresses something many parents and other caregivers do. With everything going on in your life, rushing to make meals and get tasks done, you may not leave room for lengthy verbal interactions. You may not be in the habit of offering choices to your toddler because she has been dependent on you to make every decision for her since infancy.

If this sounds like you, start offering choices and you'll see much more than just language development taking place. You'll often see a reduction in behaviors like saying "No" and temper tantrums.

A similar issue is seen as children with older siblings and children of parents who practice attachment parenting speak later. Sometimes an older sibling does all the talking for a younger one and a parent who knows a child’s cues often meets the child's needs before there is any verbal notification from the child. In either case, however, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Those children are still communicating and learning and as they get older you’d never know they spoke less or later. Still, you can use the ASHA tips to help improve your child's language skills.

A Word From Verywell

If your child seems to have delayed language development at 20 months, you may want to have her hearing checked. If she is turning 3 years old and you've been working with her in the ways mentioned but she still hasn't added new words or started putting words together, then you should talk with your pediatrician or seek the advice of a professional speech language pathologist.

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Article Sources
  • Language Delays in Toddlers: Information for Parents. American Academy of Pediatrics. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/toddler/Pages/Language-Delay.aspx.