8 Communication, Language and Literacy Development in Infancy and Toddlerhood 

Chapter Objectives

After this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Discuss the progression of language development during the first two years
  • Compare the theories of language development


We are social creaturesOver millennia and across cultures humans have formed relationships and organized themselves in pair bonds, family unitscommunities, and societies. Humans have developed ways to express spirituality, govern themselves, trade with others, keep records, and define themselves through art and stories just to name but a few human pursuits. Undoubtedly, language has played a significant role in these tasks. Indeed, from the beginning humans have created ways to communicate with others and in most societies around the globe we find humans using recognized languages to communicate with one another. In Canada there are many complexities surrounding language. Canada is viewed internationally as a bilingual nation, but only English and French are considered in this definition (Galante, 2021). These languages form a Eurocentric narrative (Khawaja, 2021), which has resulted in language discrimination and marginalization of Indigenous people and their cultures.   

In fact, Canada is a multilingual society and always has been. In precolonial times, Indigenous languages thrived across the continent.  Then European colonists brought with them two distinct cultures and languages, English and French and used policies and violent practices to eradicate Indigenous culture, including language. Residential Schools were established in which students were forbidden to speak their own language resulting in the eradication of many Indigenous languages.


Today there are seventy Indigenous languages spoken in Canada however, these languages remain at risk: statistics show that of these seventy languages, forty of them have fewer than five hundred fluent speakers remaining. Many of these speakers are over the age of sixty-five which means that with their passing, the risk of extinction becomes greater (Khawaja, 2021). As a result of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, many school boards across Canada are offering Indigenous languages immersion programs. (Indigenous Corporate Training Inc, 2021).


On June 21, 2019, the Indigenous Languages Act received Royal Assent. This Act, based on direction from First Nations, advocates for “legislation to establish long-term, sustainable, consistent, appropriate approaches to support First Nations in their efforts to recover, reclaim, maintain and normalize First Nations languages” (Assembly of First Nations, Languages and Culture, n.d.).


Recognizing the unique needs and values of the Indigenous peoples, and in keeping in alignment with its commitment to quality and Truth and Reconciliation, the Federal Government created the Indigenous Early Learning Framework. Developed collaboratively with Indigenous partners, the framework “sets the stage for Indigenous governance of improved and new systems of ELCC policy, programs and supports for Indigenous children and families, now and in the future” (Government of Canada, 2018). The Vision states, “This Framework envisions First Nations, Inuit and Métis children and families as happy and safe, imbued with a strong cultural identity. It sees children and families supported by a comprehensive and coordinated system of ELCC policies, programs and services that are led by Indigenous peoples, rooted in Indigenous knowledges, cultures and languages, and supported by strong partnerships of holistic, accessible and flexible programming that is inclusive of the needs and aspirations of Indigenous children and families” (Government of Canada, 2018).

Indigenous Perspectives

Indigenous languages have spiritual values. The language is sacred. That is why the chiefs and elders say that we need to teach our children the language.

There is mounting evidence that even though the language is not spoken in the home,  Indigenous people’s DNA carries the memory (kind of the same as blood memory) of “the language”; therefore, Indigenous children should be taught through bilingual literacy programs. Language may be latent. Also, in some situations, children will either go live with their grandparents (who are fluent in the language) or the grandparents live with the parents. This will expose the child to the language. See the following resource for more information  resource: Fostering Literacy Success for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Students 

The two official languages and beyond  

In some provinces French Immersion is offered whereby English-speaking students can enroll in the French Immersion program and remain in the program through to graduation from high school.  This supports students to engage in both English and French cultures but again this option reflects the colonial and Eurocentric narrative (Khawaja, 2021) 


Through immigration policies and humanitarian efforts, Canada welcomes hundreds of new Canadians to its shores each year. Many communities have organizations whose mandate is to facilitate the adjustment to living in in Canada including language classes. Ministries of Education across Canada have developed resources to support English Language Learners (ELL) and some employ teachers with specialized qualification for supporting this unique population of students.

Overall, our world is becoming increasingly multilingual. In Canada, there are 60 Indigenous languages, and 140 immigrant languages present in Canada. In 2020, Statistics Canada reported a 13.3% increase in the number of residents speaking more than one language at home (Statistics Canada, 2020). Children raised in these homes grow up exposed to and learning more than one language. According to Lowry (n.d.), 31% of people living in Toronto speak a language other than English at home.

Learning two or more languages at once

Lowry (n.d.), in association with the Hanen Centre in Toronto describes the ways in which children become bilingual or multilingual.

Simultaneous Acquisition refers to a child being raised bilingually from birth, or when the second language is introduced before the age of three. Children learning to speak two languages simultaneously move through the same developmental stages of language acquisition as children only learning one language to acquire two separate languages. From an early age they are able to differentiate between the two languages and switch languages depending on the context and to whom they are speaking and conversing with (Lowry, n.d.).

Sequential Acquisition refers to the learning of a second language after the first  language is  well-established. This would generally be after three years of age. This often occurs when a child immigrates to a country where the first language is not spoken or when they begin school where instruction is offered in a language other than the language spoken at home (Lowry, n.d.).


There are myths around children learning two languages at once. For example, concerns about language delays, and confusion between languages. The Hanen Centre research-based information that dispels these myths and offers many resources to support language development for all children (Lowry, n.d.)

Moving forward

To better describe human’s experience with languages, some, for example, Dr. Angelica Galante, proposes that we be begin thinking in terms of pluricultural and plurilingual (Galante, 2020).


Do newborns communicate? Absolutely! However, they do not communicate with the use of verbal language as words. Instead, they communicate their thoughts and needs with body posture (being relaxed or still), gestures, cries, and facial expressions. A person who spends adequate time with an infant can learn which cries indicate pain and which ones indicate hunger, discomfort, or frustration as well as translate their vocalizations, movements, gestures and facial expressions.


Indeed, a significant component of human communication takes place through channels of non-verbal communication. To be a socially competent person and have positive relationships with others, children need to understand nonverbal communication and how to use it effectively.

In the first few weeks and months infants’ communication tends to be related to their physiological needs. I am hungry. I am in pain. I am cold. In the second half of the first-year infants begin to communicate psychological needs as well.  I am bored’. ‘I am frightened. I am excited to see you (Kail & Zoner, 2017). 

an infant lying on her back looking up at the camera

Figure 8.1An infant looking up at the camera. (Image by Andres and Antoinette Ricardo used with permission) 

Indigenous Perspectives

Within families that are traditional, more and more infants/newborns are exposed to the language through song and ceremonies.

Stages of language development

In order to learn a language, it is necessary to be able to distinguish the basic speech sounds of that language. These sounds are referred to as phonemes and are considered the basic building blocks that are joined to create words. Phonemes include both consonant sounds and vowel sounds. For example, the sound of ‘m’ in mat and the sound of ‘e’ in leg. Children as young as one month of age can distinguish many of these sounds. (AslinJusczyk, Pisoni, 1998). Towards their first birthday infants are primarily ‘tuned in’ to the sounds of the language they are exposed to daily, and they begin to understand the recurring patterns in the sounds they are hearing. These patterns include actual words and linguistic stress helps them to determine the beginning and end of words. In English one syllable words, of which there are many, are stressed. In most two syllabled words, typically the first syllable is stressed followed by an unstressed syllable. Research shows that infants pay more attention to stressed syllables than unstressed syllablesThis is an effective strategy for identifying and learning words (Aslin et al, 1998)Indeed, by six months of age, infants are able to look to the correct parent when they hear the word “mommy” or “daddy” (Tincoff & Jusczyk, 1999) 

Of course, it takes time and practice to move from recognizing sounds and the patterns of sounds to be able to understand and speak a language. In this chapter you will learn about theories of language development and strategies that caregivers can use to support this development.

Intentional Vocalizations: Cooing and taking turns: Infants begin to vocalize and repeat vocalizations within the first couple of months of life. That gurgling, musical vocalization called cooing can serve as a source of entertainment to an infant who has been laid down for a nap or seated in a carrier on a car ride. Cooing serves as practice for vocalization as well as the infant hears the sound of their own voice and tries to repeat sounds that are entertaining. Infants also begin to learn the pace and pause of conversation as they alternate their vocalization with that of someone else and then take their turn again when the other person’s vocalization has stopped. Cooing initially involves making vowel sounds like “oooo”. Later, consonants are added to vocalizations such as “nananananana”.

Babbling and gesturing: At about four to six months of age, infants begin making even more elaborate vocalizations that include the sounds required for any language. Guttural sounds, clicks, consonants, and vowel sounds stand ready to equip the child with the ability to repeat whatever sounds are characteristic of the language heard. Eventually, these sounds will no longer be used as the infant grows more accustomed to a particular language. Babies who are deaf also use gestures to communicate wants, reactions, and feelings. Because gesturing seems to be easier than vocalization for some toddlers, sign language is sometimes taught to enhance one’s ability to communicate by making use of the ease of gesturing. The rhythm and pattern of language is used when babies who are deaf sign just as it is when hearing babies babble.

Understanding: At around ten months of age, the infant can understand more than they can say. You may have experienced this phenomenon as well if you have ever tried to learn a second language. You may have been able to follow a conversation more easily than to contribute to it.


Fast mapping: refers to children connecting words to the thing the word or phrase stands for. Children do this rapidly without considering all possible meanings of the word.

Learning theorists would emphasize that imitation is required in language acquisition and that children simply acquire language by copying what they hear. If this were true, how can we explain why young children say, ‘I goed to the zoo.’ or ‘I runned along the road.’ or ‘It’s mine turn!’ when they do not hear adults saying these things? 


More modern theories view language from a cognitive perspective and describe language acquisition as the mastering of many skills.

 Here are some examples of rules children use in acquiring language.

  • the new word refers to the object that does not already have a name and
  • the word refers to the whole object.
  • if an object has a name and another name is introduced, it must be a sub category.
  • a word applied consistently to one of a group must be a proper noun or the name for one of them

Sentences spoken by others provide cues that help with meaning and vocabulary.

Some errors which children make are:

  • underextension (car only means the family car)
  •  overextension (touque refers to all hats and head gear)

These errors disappear as children refine meanings and receive feedback from caregivers.

Now we are going to focus on two distinct styles of language: referential and expressive styles.

Referential style refers to the use of labels for objects. Children who use this style of language tend to use it  as an intellectual tool to learn and talk about objects (similar to the genre of non- fiction).

 Expressive style refers to the use of social phrases. Children who use this style of language tend to use it as a social tool to enhance interactions with others (similar to the genre of fiction). In communicating with others, both styles are important and most children use a blend of the two styles.

Communication with others  

At around ten months of age children begin to deliberately communicate with others. This might begin with gestures such as pointing or touching an object (Bates, Benigni, Bretherton, Camaioni, Volterra, 1979). Joint attention is a term that is used to describe the approach caregivers take when they carefully watch what interests the child and respond to them. This might mean looking towards an object the child is pointing to and labeling it. ‘Yes, there is a truck going by. It is big and loud, isn’t it!’ This practice supports the bundling of vocabulary as the child learns the labels for the world around them.

Many families encourage turn taking, which is an essential component of an effective conversation, before the infant uses actual words. This involves initiating interaction or responding to child’s interest. Another strategy families use is modelling the turn taking aspect of conversation by demonstrating how the role of speaker and listener alternate (Shatz, 1983).


Example: Father and Cameron, a toddler, going for a walk.

It is a cold winter’s day. As they leave their home, Cameron spots a neighbour walking with their dog. Cameron points to the dog and looks up at the father.

‘Puppy walk?’

‘Yes’, says the father, ‘Shadow’s going for a walk like us. He’s wearing a coat just like we are.’


‘Yes, can you see it? It keeps his body warm on a cold day’

‘My coat?’ Cameron looks down and with both hands pulls the bottom of his coat out to take a better look at it. Cameron looks towards the dog and then back up at his father. ‘Puppy wear mittens?’

‘No, his father replies, ‘I do not think Shadow has mittens, but sometimes when it is very cold dogs wear boots on their feet.’

‘My boots’ Cameron says proudly and stomps both his feet in the snow and looks up at his father and smiles.

The Hanen Centre in Toronto describes how these back-and-forth approaches have a significant impact on brain development related to language production and processing. It is these interactions rather than just hearing words that provide powerful opportunities for learning (Weitzman, 2017). By their first birthday children will use speech rather than relying on gestures, to initiate a conversation with others (Bloom, Margulis, Tinker & Fujita, 1996). By the time children are two years of age, turn-taking is common in conversations between the child and their caregivers (Barton & Tomasello, 1991). These early conversations are typically about significant people in their lives, and other things that are important to them such as pets, toys and favourite foods.

Holophrastic speech: Children begin using their first words at about 12 or 13 months of age and may use partial words to convey thoughts at even younger ages. These one-word expressions are referred to as holophrastic speech. For example, the child may say “ju” for the word “juice” and use this sound when referring to a bottle. The listener must interpret the meaning of the holophrase and when this is someone who has spent time with the child, interpretation is not too difficult. They know that “ju” means “juice” which means the baby wants some milk! But someone who has not been around the child will have trouble knowing what is meant. Imagine the parent who to a friend exclaims, “Ezra’s talking all the time now!” The friend hears only “ju da ga” which, the parent explains, means “I want some milk when I go with Daddy.” 

Two children playing with toys.

Figure 8.22Two children playing with toys. (Image by the U.S. Air Force is in the public domain) 

Underextension: A child who learns that a word stands for an object may initially think that the word can be used for only that particular object. Only the family’s Irish Setter is a “doggie”. This is referred to as underextension.

Overextension: More often, however, a child may think that a label applies to all objects that are similar to the original object. In overextension all animals become “doggies”, for example.

First words and cultural influences: First words if the child is using English tend to be nouns. The child labels objects such as cup or ball. In a verb-friendly language such as Chinese, however, children may learn more verbs. This may also be due to the different emphasis given to objects based on culture. Chinese children may be taught to notice action and relationship between objects while children from the United States may be taught to name an object and its qualities (color, texture, size, etc.). These differences can be seen when comparing interpretations of art by older students from China and the United States.

Vocabulary growth spurt: One-year olds typically have a vocabulary of about 50 words. But by the time they become toddlers, they have a vocabulary of about 200 words and begin putting those words together in telegraphic speech (I think of it now as ‘text message’ speech because texting is more common and is similar in that text messages typically only include the minimal number of words to convey the message).


Two-word sentences and telegraphic speech: Words are soon combined and 18-month-old toddlers can express themselves further by using expressions such as “baby bye- bye” or “doggie pretty”. Words needed to convey messages are used, but the articles and other parts of speech necessary for grammatical correctness are not yet used. These expressions sound like a telegraph (or perhaps a better analogy today would be that they read like a text message) where unnecessary words are not used. “Give baby ball” is used rather than “Give the baby the ball.” Or a text message of “Send money now!” rather than “Dear Mother. I really need some money to take care of my expenses” (Leon, n.d.).

A toddler playing with a toy telephone.

Figure 8.3 A toddler playing with a toy telephone. (Image by Salim Virji is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0) 

The Continuum of Development describes (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2014) communication, language and literacy skills for infants and toddlers. Skills developed during this time include such things as referencing, joint attention, gestures, turning taking, expressive and receptive language skills. These early skills support the development of such skills as having a conversation.  

Language milestones

In the first two years of life, children go from communicating by crying to being able to express themselves with words. Here is a table of common language milestones for infants and toddlers. 

Typical Age Typical Skill
2 months
  • Coos, makes gurgling sounds
  • Turns head toward sounds
4 months
  • Begins to babble
  • Babbles with expression and copies sounds he hears
  • Cries in different ways to show hunger, pain, or being tired
6 months
  • Responds to sounds by making sounds
  • Strings vowels together when babbling (“ah,” “eh,” “oh”) and likes taking turns with parent while making sounds
  • Responds to own name
  • Makes sounds to show joy and displeasure
  • Begins to say consonant sounds (jabbering with “m,” “b”)
9 months
  • Understands “no”
  • Makes a lot of different sounds like “mamamama” and “bababababa”
  • Copies sounds and gestures of others
  • Uses fingers to point at things
1 years
  • Responds to simple spoken requests
  • Uses simple gestures, like shaking head “no” or waving “bye-bye”
  • Makes sounds with changes in tone (sounds more like speech)
  • Says “mama” and “dada” and exclamations like “uh-oh!”
  • Tries to say words you say
18 months
  • Says several single words
  • Says and shakes head now
  • Points to show others what is wanted
2 years
  • Points to things or pictures when they are named
  • Knows names of familiar people and body parts
  • Says sentences with 2 to 4 words
  • Follows simple instructions
  • Repeats words overheard in conversation
  • Points to things in a book

Table 1Language Milestones (Developmental Milestones by the CDC is in the public domain)  

child-directed speech

Why is a horse a “horsie”? Have you ever wondered why adults tend to use “baby talk” or that sing-song type of intonation and exaggeration used when talking to children? This represents a universal tendency and is known as child-directed speech or parentese (formerly referred to as motherese and now referred to as parentese). It involves exaggerating the vowel and consonant sounds, using a high-pitched voice, and delivering the phrase with great facial expression. Why is this done? It may be in order to clearly articulate the sounds of a word so that the child can hear the sounds involved. Or it may be because when this type of speech is used, the infant pays more attention to the speaker and this sets up a pattern of interaction in which the speaker and listener are in tuned with one another (Leon, n.d.). 

Theories of Language Development

The following two theories of language development represent two extremes in the level of interaction required for language to occur (Berk, 2007, as cited in Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021). 

Chomsky and the Language Acquisition Device

The view known as nativism advocated by Noam Chomsky suggests that infants are equipped with a neurological construct referred to as the Language Acquisition Device or LAD that makes infants ready for language. Language develops as long as the infant is exposed to it. No teaching, training, or reinforcement is required for language to develop.

Social Pragmatics 

Another view emphasizes the child’s active engagement in learning language out of a need to communicate. The child seeks information, memorizes terms, imitates the speech heard from others and learns to form concepts using words as language is acquired. Many would argue that all three of these dynamics foster the acquisition of language (Berger, 2004, as cited in Paris, Ricardo, Raymond, & Johnson, 2021).

language styles

Researchers have identified that as toddlers develop language two distinct styles can be identified. These two styles are referred to as referential and expressive styles (Bates, Bretherton & Snyder, 1988) . Most toddlers prefer one of the two styles, but some blend the two styles. Toddlers who show a preference for the referential style use language to label objects and people. They tend to use single words eventually building up to phrases. They tend to interact more with adults than peers and may build vocabulary at a fast pace (Babysparks, 2019)


Children showing a preference for the expressive style use it to express feeling, needs and to socialize with adults and peers. They tend to speak in longer phrases and are not particularly concerned about being understood. Eventually longer phrases are broken down into single words. Compared to toddlers who prefer the referential style of language, vocabulary is acquired at a slower pace (Babysparks, 2019).

As with many aspects of development, culture influences the distribution of these styles of language. Research shows that caregivers in North American tend to encourage the labelling of objects and in contrast caregivers in Japan who tend to model the use of language for social connections with others (Babysparks, 2019). To support the development of both styles of language, caregivers can use intentional strategies, which emphasize the two styles and also select quality picture books which include both referential and expressive styles of language to read to toddlers.


In this chapter we looked at:

  • Infant and toddler communication language and how that leads to literacy development.
  • The progression and theories of language development were discussed as they relate to the first 2 years of development.


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