Taking your child along to explore new surroundings helps build meaningful vocabulary.

Semantics in Toddlers

by Lee Grayson

Scientists and educators who study the process of children learning language divide that development into pragmatics, phonology, syntax and semantics. The terms relate to the relationship among words, sounds your toddler uses to make words, how words have order for your child, and the meaning of words and phrases. Your toddler develops an understanding of language by listening and chatting up a storm.


You may hear your toddler repeat a word accenting different syllables, such as "co-CO-nut," "CO-co-nut" or "Co-co-NUT." Stressing the different syllables is not done to bug you; it's simply experimenting with words to help your child discover sound patterns. It might be annoying to hear your son or daughter parrot the words you use at the grocery store, but it's typically not done to get on your nerves. Your toddler is practicing unfamiliar words. Encourage your toddler by combining new words with words your child already knows, such as, "We're going to the grocery store to buy some milk for our lunch."


Semantics explores the meaning of words. Your child hears friends and family use different new words for the same object, and the names can be confusing. Is it a sofa or a couch? Do you drive an auto, car or the manufacturer's model such as Volkswagen or Bug? Maybe you've named your vehicle and take off for an outing in George. If your mailman's name is also George, your toddler has a major bit of decoding to do to understand the meaning of both words. Explaining differences and using repetition helps your child learn new words, associate meaning and develop a basic vocabulary.

Connections and Mapping

Once your toddler has a set of words with meaning, the next step in semantics is for your child to make language connections. If your child hears you regularly scold your dog with "Bad dog!" your toddler connects bad and your dog. Your child learns your pup's name as "Bad Dog," and yells this at the canine -- even when the dog hasn't done anything wrong. Your toddler then ends up with poor semantic connections, and your poor dog is confused about what behavior qualifies as bad. Paying attention to word connections when your child is listening gives your toddler a better grasp of the overall meaning of language.


While a set of general language guidelines apply to most toddlers, each child develops at an individual pace. Help your toddler learn language by speaking in complete sentences and repeating words when answering questions. If your child asks where you're going, answer, "We're going to the store to buy milk," rather than simply replying, "The store." Ask your child to look for items in the store and talk about the experience while shopping. Help your toddler develop language and vocabulary by introducing words while in the store to associate the new vocabulary with physical objects. Avoid the unusual, but fun, shapes while grocery shopping, like the cherimoya or akee, but feature more common foods your child sees daily such as apples and bananas.

About the Author

Lee Grayson has worked as a freelance writer since 2000. Her articles have appeared in publications for Oxford and Harvard University presses and research publishers, including Facts On File and ABC-CLIO. Grayson holds certificates from the University of California campuses at Irvine and San Diego.

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