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The two-word stage is the third major period in the language acquisition of children, following the one-word stage.
The two-word stage typically occurs at the age of 18 to 24 months and consists of toddlers using two-word phrases in their speech.
At this stage, toddlers continue to develop their vocabulary and the range of sounds that they can produce. The qualifying element is the use of two-word phrases that are dense in content words (words that hold and convey meaning). Function words (words that hold sentences together) are beyond the ability of toddlers at this age and so they are rarely used.
The sentences produced at this stage consist primarily of nouns and verbs, and despite the lack of function words, toddlers use the correct grammatical sequence in their sentences. Toddlers will enter this period with around 50 words in their vocabulary, but by 24 months they may know over 600 words! ¹
It is undeniable that toddlers at the two-word stage can produce meaningful utterances that make sense grammatically. However, their speech is still clearly unlike adult speakers, their limited vocabulary means they haven't developed the ability to use function words such as articles, auxiliary verbs and subject pronouns.
A toddler's development of syntax can be observed at this stage from the increasingly complex words that they put together to communicate with adults. They begin to learn how to express semantic relations with actions, objects, entities and locations, and also start forming commands and questions.
Some examples of common phrases that infants will use are shown in the table.
|Word type||Two-word phrase||Possible meaning||Semantic relation expressed|
|Verb + noun||"Read book."||Can you read the book?||Action + Object|
|Pronoun + verb||"He run."||He is running.||Agent + Action|
|Pronoun + noun||"My cookie."||That's my cookie.||Possessor + Object|
|Noun + adjective||"Mummy busy."||Mummy is busy.||Agent + Action|
|Noun + verb||"Daddy sleep."||Daddy is sleeping.||Agent + Action|
|Noun + Noun||"Toy floor."||The toy is on the floor.||Entity + Location|
|Noun + adjective||"Car shiny."||The car is shiny.||Entity + attributes|
A major component of language development comes from toddlers repeating words or phrases that they hear adults use. In this process, they will negate the function words that adults use and only use the keywords.
Adult: "Look, the dog just jumped!"
Toddler: "Dog jump!"
Children follow simple rules to generate their two-word utterances. They tend to build phrases around a single stable word, rather than choosing two terms of the same status.
The phrases they utter are built around 'pivot' words and open words. Pivot words are high-frequency words that are typically determiners or prepositions and are always in a fixed position (either the first or second word). They can be used in conjunction with a wide variety of words, making them a useful part of a child's vocabulary. ²
Open words make up the content of the two-word phrase and are often a noun or a verb. These words can be interchanged as the first or second word of a phrase, and may also be used in isolation.
First-word pivot - All gone.
The example word 'all gone' represents a pivot that's used as a first word. A toddler may use the word in a variety of situations: ' all gone sweets', 'all gone bread' or 'all gone toy'. It is unlikely for the toddler to use the pivot word as the second word of a phrase, which is composed of an open word.
Second-word pivot - Off.
Second-word pivots are used less frequently than first word pivots. The word 'off' can be used in a variety of ways: 'TV off', 'light off' or 'shoe off '. Similarly to first-word pivots, a child is unlikely to use a second-word pivot as the first word in a phrase.
A toddler at this stage will find it difficult to express their thoughts clearly to adults since their vocabulary limits them. Toddlers can assign meaning to words in several ways, which is difficult to interpret with confidence because of the lack of syntactic markings in the language. ³
A word that a child uses will refer to the entire object, not to any of the constituent parts.
A child may learn the word 'flower', and then use it to name any plant that it sees.
It could be that the toddler isn't able to perceive the difference between the plants and flowers, or the toddler may settle for using the word flower because there aren't any alternatives in their vocabulary.
It can be difficult to figure out what a toddler is trying to say without considering the broader context. Adults must pay close attention to the child's body language when they are trying to speak, as they may provide clues by looking or pointing to a relevant object.
The context is equally important for the toddler that is trying to understand what the adult is saying.
Toddlers haven't yet achieved full command over the pronunciation of words, and they will display common errors in their speech.
The pronunciation of a word is affected by a particular sound in the word. A toddler will replace a difficult sound with a sound that is more familiar with.
Toddlers often struggle with bilabials, which are consonant sounds made by pressing the lips together, such as p, b and m sounds. They find it much easier to produce the same sounds in a word, so they tend to assimilate when they come across difficult words to pronounce. If there's a bilabial sound in a word, a toddler may use the same bilabial in another part of the word since it's easier to pronounce.
The word 'rubber' may be articulated as 'bubber'.
Gliding is when liquid sounds (l and r) are replaced with glide sounds (w and y). It's a normal part of a child's language development process and usually disappears at 5 years old.
The word 'red' may be articulated as 'wed '.
A child may have difficulty pronouncing a cluster of consonants in a word and reduce it by one or more consonants.
The word 'spoon' may be articulated as 'poon'.
This is when an unstressed syllable in a word is not articulated.
The word 'banana' may be articulated as 'nana'.
Consonant sounds that have a long airflow are replaced by sounds that have a stopped airflow.
The word 'sun' may be articulated as 'tun'.
The two-word stage is the third stage of language development.
Toddlers develop the ability to form two-word phrases.
The two-word stage usually takes place from 18 to 24 months of age.
Toddlers start to develop grammar and syntax.
Pivot and open words are used to form phrases to communicate ideas.
Toddlers still produce pronunciation errors in their speech.
Oller. D., et al., Infant babbling and speech, Journal of Child Language. 1976
JG de Villiers, PA de Villiers, Language Acquisition, Vol. 16. 1980.
Lightfoot et al., The Development of Children. 2008.
The two-word stage typically takes place from 18 to 24 months of age.
Toddlers in the two-word stage can utter phrases such as 'mummy sleep'. The words used are often nouns and verbs.
The holophrastic is the second stage in language development and precedes the two-word stage. Infants at this stage will begin using single words to communicate.
Toddlers can form a variety of phrases for different scenarios. They can express actions, commands and questions at this stage.
How many words do toddlers typically know at the start of the two-word phrase?
True or false: Toddlers typically use adjectives when talking in the two-word stage.
False. Toddlers in the two-word stage often use nouns and verbs in their speech.
Why do adults find it difficult sometimes to interpret a toddlers' speech?
Toddlers rarely use function words and grammatical morphemes in their speech, they mainly use content words. This makes their sentences contextually dependent.
True or false: A toddlers' speech could have multiple meanings.
True. Since toddlers' speech rarely includes syntactic markings, it becomes difficult to interpret what the toddler is saying with certainty.
Why does an adult need to consider the context of a toddlers' speech?
The context is helpful in adding information to the toddlers' speech, which can help it to make more sense.
True or false: Pivot words are often the first word in a two-word phrase.
True. Although pivot words can appear as the second word, they typically appear as the first word.
What type of word usually makes on 'open' word?
Open words are usually nouns or verbs and form the content part of a phrase.
What is assimilation?
When a difficult sound is replaced with an easier one to help with pronunciation.
What is a gliding error?
When liquid sounds (l and r) are replaced with glide sounds (w and y).
Which of the following phrases is a stop error?
'Sea' is pronounced as 'tea'.
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