Psychological Development Across the Lifespan

Toddler Years

How is toddler language a window into children’s cognitive development?

In the examples below, toddler language reveals key developmental processes. Vanessa speaks in full sentences at two and a half and has clearly discovered the first person possessive. Her emphasis on the word “my” reflects a critical step in the development of the sense of self. Her insistence on her privileged relationship with (if not ownership of) her mother also reflects the importance of mother-child attachment. Cognitively, she is in Piaget’s pre-operational stage. She does not realize that she cannot be both granddaughter and grandfather to her own grandfather.

David’s speech is still largely telegraphic. His emphasis on the sound that a bus makes (“Brrr”) reflects the importance of sensory-motor experience in the development of language. His interest in the gender of the bus driver reflects his newfound fascination with grown men. At this age little boys first recognize their male gender. This is a fundamental step in their individuation from their mother; unlike their mother, they are boys not girls.

These interchanges took place when Vanessa and her mother, Julie, were visiting family after several months away.

Grandpa Baba: Vanessa, don’t you look cute today!
Vanessa: (Pause.) Baba is MYYYY granddaughter and MYYYY grandfather!
Uncle Daniel: Do you want to talk on the phone to Susan?
Vanessa: Susan! Daniel is MYYYY uncle!
Uncle Daniel: Vanessa, Julie is my sister. I am Julie’s brother.
Vanessa: (Pause. Clear consternation.) JU-LEE … is … MYYYY mother!!! JU-LEE … is … MYYYY mother!!! (Repeat five times)

As is not uncommon with boys, when David was two years old, he was not as verbally advanced as his older sister Vanessa had been at the same age. This interchange took place as he watched his sister go off to kindergarten in a school bus.


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