One of the most exciting changes in language development is when babies start using words to communicate. I have to admit; I too experienced the anticipation as my children approached word use age. I couldn’t wait to hear their little voices and find out what they were going to say as their first words!
In my profession as a speech-language pathologist, I speak to many parents of young infants. When I ask at what age they should expect their baby’s first words many are unsure. In addition, I have been asked by almost every first time parent “what do you mean by first words”. Since this type of information is common knowledge to me because of my education and training, I sometimes forget that it may not be to the general population, which is a concern for me as a clinician.
It is very important that parents have a basic understanding of their child’s speech and language development for two reasons. First, if parents aren’t aware of the age at which their children are suppose to be hitting their speech and language milestones, they won’t be aware if their children have missed a milestone and how late they actually are. Second, if parents don’t know what to expect their children to do at each speech and language milestone they are less likely to be able to help them along. For example, babies will take first steps when they are developmentally ready, but when you know what to look for (e.g., pulling themselves to standing, cruising) you can be there to help them along. The same is true for first words.
With this post I would like to set the record straight about what a first word is and when to expect it in typical language development.
What is a first word?
Since babies are pretty noisy, typically using lots of different sounds before words begin, it may be hard to tell when they use an actual true word. To be considered a true word there are four things that need to happen:
- The word should contain a vowel similar to what would be expected in the adult production of the word (e.g., ‘mama’ has a similar vowel sound as in ‘mom’ or ‘mommy’)
- It should be a single production of sounds to distinguish it from babbling or jargon (e.g., ‘mama’ followed by a pause, instead of ‘mamamamama’)
- The word is used in the same way repeatedly (e.g., ‘mama’ is used to always refer to mom and not the dog, cars and toys as well)
- The word is used in a communicative way to intentionally send a message to another person (e.g., ‘mama’ is used when talking to or referring to mom)
Here are some examples of what first words might sound like:
- ‘ka’ for ‘car’
- ‘uh’ for ‘up’
- ‘baba’ for ‘bubbles’
- ‘tee’ for ‘tree’
- ‘doo’ for ‘juice’
What word will my child say?
Although it may seem completely random, in actual fact there are specific things that influence what a child’s first word may be.
- Environment – Children tend to choose words to say that they are exposed to often; generally having heard them repeatedly as part of their daily routines. For example, babies who live on a farm and see tractors every day are more likely to say ‘tractor’ as a first word, compared to babies who grow up in the city and who may not see or hear about tractors as much.
- Word Type – Children’s early vocabularies consist mainly of nouns, verbs and social words. This is because these are usually words that children can see, touch or experience, which helps them more quickly understand word meaning. For example, ball, car, up or bye-bye are more likely to be first words instead of abstract words like think, joy or wish.
- Sounds in the words – How difficult a word is to say will influence whether or not a child will include it in their early vocabulary. In general children choose words with simple syllable structures (e.g., ‘train’ instead of ‘locomotive’), as well as words that contain speech sounds that are easier to say (e.g., p, b, n, m, d, w instead of s, r, l, v).
- Usefulness – Babies generally like to talk about things that are important and of interest to them. One child might love cars and want to play with them all the time, in which case ‘car’ may be a first word. Another child may not be as interested in cars, therefore the usefulness of the word ‘car’ won’t be as high for this baby and is less likely to appear as their first word.
- Style – Babies are born with different communication styles. Some are risk takers and some are more cautious. Risk takers tend to be very expressive and say anything and everything regardless of whether they can say it clearly or if they fully understand the word’s meaning. The more cautious type prefer to talk about things when they feel ready; usually describing people and objects they are familiar and comfortable with when learning to talk. Lots of babies fall somewhere between these two ends of the continuum.
When do first words occur?
First words occur between 9-14 months of age. Before this babies are using sounds to babble (e.g., babababa or dadada) and then in jargon (e.g., badagitu). These sounds, although at times it may seem as if they are directed towards you, are not words. This is the way babies practice using their speech sounds to get ready to say true words.
Beginning as early as 9 months babies may use protowords. These are sounds a baby has chosen to mean something, and are used with the intention of communicating with another person, but are not true words. For example, my daughter said ‘ka’ when she was around 10 months every time she wanted something. To her this was a ‘word’ that meant ‘want’, however it was not a true word because it was not similar to the real, adult word. Protowords can occur before and at the same time as true words emerge, however they disappear as a child’s speech and language skills become more sophisticated.
I hope this post answers a few questions for parents out there looking to understand a little more about their child’s language development. Knowing what to expect and when will help increase responsiveness to a baby’s early communication attempts. This is super important because the more responsive a parent is to a baby’s early communication, the better it is for their language development.
As always, I would love to hear any thoughts, questions, comments or concerns about this post or any other I’ve done so we can keep the lines of communication open between each other and our kiddos!
Apel, K. & Masterson, J. Beyond Baby Talk. From Speaking To Spelling: A Guide to Language and Literacy Development for Parents and Caregivers. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press, 2012.
Hoff, E. Language Development 3rd ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005.