How Parents Understand Toddler Speak

I used to hear little kids babble unintelligible things and be astounded when their moms understood them.

Kid: Bleah buh dinka deh

Kid’s mom: He wants some milk.

Me: !

I thought it was some kind of acquired parenting superpower. Maybe maternal hormones convert the part of our brains that keeps up with current music into magical toddler-translating chips.

Now that I’m a mom, I realize it’s more about spending enough time around your child to pick up on their unique communication patterns.

It’s very context driven…

My daughter Brontë, for example, only uses the final syllable of many words, so…

“mingo” = flamingo

“funt” = elephant

“bees” = Cheerios (Because there’s a giant bee on the box, which doesn’t actually follow the last-syllable pattern, but that’s how she says Cheerios.)

I also discovered that kid-speak is more logical than I’d expected, more about them tripping over language inconsistencies than being randomly wrong.

Take the word “mingos.” It makes sense. It’s efficient, because why do we need the “fla-” in front? What other kinds of mingos are we needing to distinguishing flamingos from? I, for one, can’t think of any other kind of mingos besides the “flavor” variety.

Or, take the kid habit of calling everything “MINES.” As in, “That’s MINES!”

Sounds silly, until you realize how every other English word showing possession ends with -s.

That hat is yours. Or his. Or hers. Or ours. Or theirs, or Sally‘s or Henry‘s…”Mine” is an inexplicable outlier. What a dirty trick.

On the other hand, I also discovered a deep, dark parenting secret:

Sometimes parents don’t understand their kids’ garbled language either. They’re just pretending they do.


Because the kid is trying s u p e r  h a r d to communicate and you don’t want to hurt their feelings by looking as baffled as you secretly feel.

Have you ever been to a foreign country, or, for some other reason, tried to get an idea across while only using your amateurish knowledge of a second language?   It’s terrifying, right?

After finally working up the courage to stammer out enough high school French to order a ham sandwich, seeing the waiter stare back at you with a pained smile that betrays utterly no hint that any of your words made the slightest sense is the absolutely WORST thing that can happen. It’s humiliating… the sudden realization that, despite your best efforts, your heavy accent just made you sound like a garbling lunatic.

And we don’t want to do that to our kids, just in case it scares them away from trying to speak English again for another six months.

So… even when our kids are babbling so incoherently that we aren’t even sure whether they’re trying to say actual words or just mimicking the sounds grown-ups make when they talk, we put on our game face.

It’s an on-purpose casual face that says, “Yeah, I totally get what you just said to me” as we quietly scramble to figure out what they could be possibly be talking about right now: They just had salty food, so maybe they’re thirsty… no, water just made them mad. Did their voice go up at the end like a question, or drop, like they were telling us what our problem is?

Sometimes you get lucky and figure it out, while other times, it remains a mystery…

Last night, my two-year-old daughter Bridget spent an hour stomping back and forth across the house, screaming about the unfairness of TACOS and BELTS.

I’m not sure what prompted her belt & taco protest. Maybe she was angry about how belts end up restricting her endless taco desires by limiting how far her belly can go. Or maybe she was angry about talking bats. There’s no way we can know.

I can’t wait for enunciation to kick in.




7 thoughts on “How Parents Understand Toddler Speak

  1. “Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteers be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm.”

    Makes you think!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, that’s pretty fascinating, since its true that the whole paragraph makes sense with no trouble at all. And most kids’ grammar mistakes also make logical sense–they get the meaning across just fine.

      Liked by 1 person

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