Your baby has been listening to you talk from their days in your womb. Then comes the big day when they copy you and start to say single words — and even string a couple of words together.

Language development experts call this initial coupling of words telegraphic speech.

Over 100 years ago, when sending a telegraph was expensive, you’d weigh your words carefully to make sure that your sentences included only the important stuff.

Your brilliant child is essentially doing the same thing: paring away the fluff but getting the message across. Typically, the sentences contain only two or three words.

Here are some important features of telegraphic speech:

  • Words are in the correct order.
  • Only the most important words are used (usually a noun and a verb or an adjective and a noun).
  • Grammatical constructions are missing, such as prefixes, conjunctions, prepositions, pronouns, and question words.
  • Suffixes like the gerund “ing,” as well as the plural “s” are missing.

Early birds will start using telegraphic speech between 16 and 18 months. However, it’s more common for children between 18 and 24 months to start putting two-word phrases together.

Between the ages of 2 to 2 1/2-years-old, children will progress to three-word telegraphic speech.

Children develop language skills at varying paces, so resist the temptation to compare your toddler with the toddler standing in line with their parent at the checkout counter. In addition, research shows that girls’ speech typically develops faster than boys’ speech: On average, at 16 months, girls have a vocabulary of 95 words, while boys have a vocabulary of 25 words.

Language skills are essential for communicating feelings, thinking and problem-solving, developing relationships, and eventually getting a job (yes, it may seem light-years away). Telegraphic speech, one of the first steps of language development, helps your child do the following:

  • communicate thoughts and feelings, thus avoiding frustration
  • share their experiences
  • experiment with sentence structure

Few things compare to the thrill of communicating with your child. This significant milestone is when your child starts sharing their world. You may hear things like:

  • mommy sit
  • daddy fix it
  • Joe hungry
  • more cookie
  • where paci
  • big doggie

Encouraging telegraphic speech is a fun activity for you and your child, especially when you exercise patience. Use these three easy steps:

  • Watch your child to see what they’re interested in.
  • Show that you’re also interested (what’s important to you is important to me).
  • Wait without speaking in case they want to say something.

Model correct language

When you speak, use correct language models — not telegraphic speech. Research shows that correct models help children develop language skills, as they include cues about grammar, syntax, stress, and rhythm. Your child uses these cues to figure out what they’re hearing.

It may be hard to believe, but when your child hears the word “the,” they’ll learn that what comes next is a noun. “You’re reading the book” conveys more information to your child than “Read book.”

Use gestures

Don’t hide your acting abilities. Research suggests that gestures are at the cutting edge of early language development.

Typically, children use gestures before they say words, and then use a combination of words and gestures. Think of gestures as stepping stones to increasingly complex linguistic constructions. When you raise your fingers to your mouth and say, “I’m eating a cookie,” you’re giving your child both a visual and auditory cue.

Organize fun activities

  • Describe what you’re doing as you go about your day washing the dishes, taking a walk, and bathing your tot.
  • When sorting the laundry, hold up each item and ask your child what you’re holding. Prompt them to say who the item belongs to and what it is. For example, “Mommy’s shirt.”
  • When playing with building blocks or toy animals, talk about what you’re doing and repeat the words that you want to teach. Start with one new word per activity. As your child gets older, you can add more. For example, “Let’s put the lion in the corner. Where’s the lion? Is it a big lion?”
  • When reading your child a story, stop and ask questions. For example, “Who’s sitting on the chair?” Your child may give you telegraphic answers, such as “Boy sit.” If they don’t, give them the answer. Soon, your child will be asking the questions themselves!

Two- or three- word telegraphic speech is one step in learning to talk, read, and write. You may notice that their speech develops in spurts rather than on a steady continuum — and that’s fine.

Between the ages of 2 and 3, your child will start adding more words to their sentences. You can encourage them by expanding on what they say. For example, when they say, “Benny feed dog,” you can say, “You’re feeding the dog. The dog’s hungry.” Watch how quickly your child catches on and starts using the rules of grammar.

Your child is using multiple brain areas and complex cognitive and motor processes when they speak. It’s not surprising that it takes years to build a complete system.

The tentative firsts of telegraphic speech lay the foundation for so many more fun conversations ahead.