In our article How Babies Learn Language, we outlined the predictable path a child follows when learning a language. Even before birth, a child is exposed to sounds and words while in utero. At 24 weeks, the ears are nearly fully formed, and by 26 weeks, an unborn child responds to noises and voices, and can detect the mom’s heartbeat, breathing, and digestion gurgles. Then, starting at birth, a newborn begins linking sounds and words to people, things, and actions.
Receptive language—words a child understands but doesn’t yet say—typically precedes language production by several months. At 8 months, a little one begins to understand his or her name along with such often-used words as “bottle,” “mama,” “dada” and “bye-bye.” “No no” and “all gone” typically are understood at about 11 months. By age 1, a child will understand more than 50 words, and that number will continue to grow dramatically month-to-month, even though that child may barely be talking.
The acquisition of expressive language—words a child understands and says—relates to what a child best knows and is interested in—mom and dad, for example. Note that the word “infant” comes from the Latin infans, meaning “incapable of speech.” So, once your child begins talking, technically, he or she is no longer an infant.
You might be surprised to learn that the first words a child says are somewhat predictable. Over a period of 30 years, a team of experts in child psychology, speech pathology, developmental psychology, language development, and linguistics studied the origins of communication and language in infants and young children.
Following their extensive research, the team published the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventories (CDIs). The CDIs consist of lists of carefully vetted vocabulary words children acquire between the ages of 8 and 37 months. Each word is normed, meaning it was tested in a group made up of 40 girls and 40 boys with an ethnicity distribution similar to that shown by the U.S. Census figures, and where English is the primary language spoken at home.
Based on the norming data, each word was slotted into the month where 50 percent of the children tested understood it. Remember, a child may understand a word at a very early age, yet he or she may not say that word until months later.
So, what first words should you expect your little one to understand, and ultimately say? Here’s a sneak peek, taken from the CDIs.
bottle or ba
mommy or mama
daddy or dada
If you haven’t done so already, check out eWords, a ParentPal feature containing 260 early words from the CDIs. Each word has related pictures and illustrations, and English and Spanish pronunciations. Double-tap on any screen to see the month when that word is predicted to be understood, based on the CDIs data.
Words are sorted into 14 groups, including animals and animal sounds, everyday things, descriptive words, food and drink, actions, and clothes. (This example shows how eWords can be used to guide the exploration of the concept of “dog.”)
Remember, you are your child’s first and most important teacher. Helping him or her with language acquisition is something you can get started on today!