What is telegraphic speech for children?

Updated November 21, 2016

Telegraphic speech is a stage all children go through in learning to talk. It usually sets in when the baby is around 18 months old. Typically it consists of two-word sentences, which convey the child’s message without the complications of grammar. It is called telegraphic because it sounds like the terse telegrams, using the minimum number of words, which people used to send before they had mobile phones or email.

Benefits of telegraphic speech

Telegraphic speech uses only the most essential words and the simplest form of syntax. Typical combinations are noun + verb or adjective + noun. Simply putting together two or three significant words is enough to get the message across to an adult who is paying attention. For example, utterances like “More juice,” “Mummy come,” or “No go bed” can convey exactly what the child wants or doesn’t want, provided an adult is there to interpret the situation. Telegraphic speech lets them take part in conversation. The more they join in, the more effectively they build up relationships and improve their language skills. According to Kate Scott of University College London, telegraphic speech strikes a balance between relevance and complexity in order to convey meaning with the minimum effort. It keeps the key elements, such as “not” or “more”, and omits those that are either obvious (such as “I” or “want”) or grammatically elaborate (such as “am,” “the,” “to,” “-ing” or “-ed”).

Stages in learning to talk

Vocalisation starts with crying and cooing at 0 to 6 months. Babbling sets in at 6 to 10 months, when babies practise making different sounds. By 12 to 18 months, most are uttering holophrastic (one-word) sentences such as “Up!” or “More!” or “Dada!” Telegraphic speech is normal at 18 to 24 months. At this stage children are learning words rapidly through having adults talk to and with them, and are likely to understand much more than they can easily express. Telegraphic speech leads on to longer sentences with grammatical constructs, such as tenses, prepositions and plural or possessive forms of words. Vocabulary expands, and by age four children are asking “Why…? What…? Where…?” about almost everything.

Talking with children

Language and socialisation develop together. By 6 to 10 months, babies are responding to the “motherese” directed at them: a mix of simple words, singing and expression. Speech experts debate whether adults ought to use telegraphic speech with late or reluctant talkers because it sounds simple, or whether they should use everyday language so the listener learns to pick up clues about meaning from other qualities of speech, such as pitch, intonation and expression. Although using telegraphic speech can teach children individual words, it may be less effective at improving their general language skills because it leaves out these other aspects. Adults may help more in the long run by using ordinary sentences geared to the children’s level of understanding; i.e. spoken slowly and expressively and focused on their response.

Second-language learners

According to the Education Alliance at Brown University and the Council of Chief State School Officers, children learning English as a second language learn it in a set pattern. When they find that the language spoken at home does not work at school, they typically go through a silent period while learning through observation. Next comes telegraphic speech, where children use two or three words to stand in for a whole sentence, as when they used to do as babies first learning to talk. In second-language learning, however, telegraphic speech gives way to formulaic, where students repeat familiar phrases without fully understanding them. With growing confidence they become able to think and talk more productively in English.

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