Which Words Will My Child Learn First?

First words are not just the most common ones.

Posted Aug 29, 2020

Kevin Liang/Unsplash
Source: Kevin Liang/Unsplash

My four-year-old learned three new words recently: derecho, generator, and cicada. She is old enough and talks so much that I no longer notice every one of her new words like I did during her toddler stage. However, I couldn’t help but notice these. “Mama, why did the derecho come here? Will there be another derecho?” (“I don’t know, I hope not.”) “Should we get a generator so we can watch Moana?” (“No, we’ll be ok.”) “I hear so many cicadas!” (“So do I!”)

We live in central Iowa, and our lives were turned upside down on August 10th by a derecho storm that blew across Iowa with 100 mph winds. Thankfully, our loved ones and possessions are healthy and safe. However, we learned to live without power for a full week and without internet for two weeks, which led us to have many discussions about what uses electricity and what kinds of sounds we could hear in our neighborhood with the windows open and no fans, air conditioning, or other electric hums to distract us. Therefore, we had quite a few nighttime discussions of neighborhood generators and cicadas.

Hearing my daughter use these words made me think about the order and context in which children start using new words – she certainly hadn’t been using the words derecho and generator before the storm blew through. It would be reasonable to guess that babies begin speaking by saying the words that they hear most frequently. However, have you ever heard of a baby’s first word being and or the? Even though those words are very commonly heard in English, I doubt you have heard them lovingly recounted as a baby’s first word – the very idea is comical. The frequency must not be the defining feature of which words children learn.

Developmental psychologists have thought about this topic in a couple of ways. One is that children might have innate mental abilities that lead them towards learning the names of objects before learning words for abstract ideas because thinking about objects is simply easier. This idea is supported by studies showing that children have more nouns in their early vocabularies. It should mean that children learning any language would have similar patterns in their early words. But the answer gets complicated when we consider evidence from other languages and cultures.

Twila Tardif and colleagues (2008) looked at the first ten words in children’s speech in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese, to see if there were differences in the kinds of words children started using during toddlerhood. Hundreds of parents from the US (English), Beijing (Mandarin), and Hong Kong (Cantonese) reported their children’s early words. And I mean really early: when the child was producing fewer than 10 words. The researchers then collected the 20 most frequent words from across all of those parents’ lists.

Across all three languages and cultures, there were six words that all made the top-20 list: mommy, daddy, hello, bye, uh-oh, and woof-woof. There were several words that only appear on the US list, including bottle, banana, no, and kitty. Some of the words that appeared on the Hong Kong and Beijing list, but not the US list, included sister (older), brother (older), grandma (maternal), grandma (paternal), auntie (maternal), and grandpa (paternal). (Note that, unlike English, these languages have more different words for family members, like older vs. younger sister, or maternal vs. paternal grandfather.) Tardif and colleagues also found that the children in Hong Kong and Beijing were significantly more likely to have a verb in their first 10 words spoken than the US children, who used almost entirely nouns.

In this sample, we get an interesting picture of linguistic and cultural elements that lead children to produce their first few words. Cantonese and Mandarin speakers tend to emphasize verbs more than English speakers, based on where the verb is in a sentence (Tardif, 1996), which gives those children a higher likelihood of using verbs early on. While the children all learned some words for family and typical social interactions like greetings, the children in non-US contexts learned many more kinship terms, suggesting a social and cultural emphasis on these words.

This doesn’t even have to do with family structure – in the Beijing context, 99 percent of the children had no siblings and most lived in small nuclear family units. The emphasis of US parents on labeling objects and animals as an important part of playing with children likely influences the number of those labels in the US context (duck, dog, cat, and kitty were all in the top 20 list for English). As the authors point out, the US families were probably as unlikely to have a duck in their home as the Beijing families were to have multiple siblings – but cultural and linguistic patterns led those parents to emphasize those words in their interactions with their children.

Our children use words that they hear often, of course, but they also tune in to what we emphasize and what is noticeable and important in our environments. They are driven by the language spoken in the home, what they are interested in, and what their parents are emphasizing to them. Dramatic or surprising circumstances might bring new vocabulary into a child’s life, as it did mine, and our emphasis on those words will help make them part of our children’s vocabulary.

Facebook image: MIA Studio/Shutterstock

References

Tardif, T., Fletcher, P., Liang, W., Zhang, Z., Kaciroti, N., & Marchman, V. (2008). Baby’s first 10 words. Developmental Psychology, 44, 929-938.

Tardif, T. (1996). Nouns are not always learned before verbs: Evidence from Mandarin speakers’ early vocabularies. Developmental Psychology, 32, 492-504.