Early Language

The Progression of Imitation

Imitation- the ability to mirror, repeat, and practice the actions of others. And children LOVE it and are BORN with it. Think about in the early days when your child copies your smile or sticks their tongue out. As they enter the language explosion stage they begin imitating EVERYTHING you say- words, tone of voice, and intonation! I always say if you want to know how you sound, have a toddler imitate you.

Let’s take a quick look at how it progresses over time:

Actions with Objects

Around 8 months of age children begin imitating familiar gestures such as clapping, the movements used in peek-a-boo, or pushing a button after watching the adult make it work. This continues to progress over the first few years and by the time the child is close to 3 they are able to imitate multiple steps and use them for pretend play.

Communicative Gestures

Gestures are extremely important in predicting language development later on. One way children learn these gestures is by imitating us. Practice pointing, waving, shaking and nodding your head, giving a thumbs up, and all the other gestures you can think of!

Vocalizations in Play

These vocalizations, also called symbolic sounds, are great for practicing vowels and beginning sounds. They also encourage joint attention while playing with objects that interest the child. Get out the cars, make the blocks go “crash/boom”, and have fun with animal sounds while reading and playing.

Exclamatory Words

These are fun, easy to repeat syllable sequences that typically aren’t considered “true words”. However, children often can produce these words BEFORE other functional words like more, no, all done. Some of these words include: yum, uh oh!, wow, yay, weee, yuck, oopzie, and ouch.

Automatic Speech in Verbal Routines

This occurs when you have the same verbal routines for activity every time you do it. The child is familiar with the word/phrase and hears it often. It may be counting out snacks/colors, saying “ready, set, go” when playing with cars or having a race, or having a saying every time you leave the house (growing up when we would get back to the house my mother always said “home again, home again, jiggity jig”).

Functional Words

Imitating functional words gives the child an opportunity to use language to gain something. When children are first learning to talk they want/need to see the “prize” for their talking. Eat, drink, a favorite toy, and “more” are common functional words children learn to imitate early on.

Short Phrases

Once the child has learned that using spoken words can get them what they want you often see an increase in vocabulary. A great way to continue expanding this is by having the child imitate short phrases (2-3 words). Combine a word they have in their vocabulary with a new word or add it to a common phrase like we did here (“bye bye everyone”).

Imitation is the foundation for Theory of Mind. It plays a crucial role in the development of empathy, role taking, and putting yourself in someone else’s place (Tarshis et al, 2016). Start at the top and work with your child to progress through each stage. As they progress through each stage you will see their awareness of other increase, ability to be independent increase, and see the foundation of play skills with peers begin to emerge.


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