Baby’s first word is one of the milestones most eagerly anticipated by parents during the first year. As with all the stages of growth and development, a baby’s ability for language develops in a series of steps. The steps are similar for all children, but the timing will vary by individual.
Long before the “first word”, your baby establishes communication with his world through crying, movement, and facial expressions. These first attempts to connect with the world serve the purpose of language by helping the baby to communicate his needs to others. At about six to eight weeks of age, your baby will usually have a small repertoire of sounds described as “cooing”. Over the next two to three months, he will continue to add sounds such as squeals, growls, grunts, croons, and yells.
Babbling occurs at about six or seven months of age for most babies. This stage is particularly exciting for new parents because the sounds produced in babbling are very similar to the repetitions of syllables found in adult speech. Many parents are thrilled to hear their infant repeatedly saying “ma-ma” or “da-da”. Some researchers believe that babies babble in response to being spoken to, which mimics the “taking-of-turns” in adult conversation.
As they become more adept at babbling, babies are influenced by the language of their environment, and start to produce some of the sounds found in their parents’ native language. Studies on infant language development have shown that babies develop a preference for hearing the language to which they have become accustomed, and will begin to ignore sounds not found in their native language.
This is an excellent time to begin reading to your baby, if you have not already begun. Reading with your baby will expose him to the sounds of language and help him build vocabulary. Though your baby may not be able to say words yet, he can understand familiar spoken words. By ten months, some children can comprehend up to twenty-five words.
Around the age of twelve months, many babies will begin speaking single words, with girls tending to speak sooner than boys. At this stage, babies often use single words to express more complete thoughts and desires. For example, when your one year old says the word “ball”, he may be trying to convey a more complex meaning than simply naming the object. By saying the word, he could be implying that he wants to play a game with the ball. These single word sentences are called holophrases.
After the first year, children experience a rapid growth of vocabulary, learning up to ten new words per day between the ages of two and five.
While language ability develops at an individual pace, you can support the process by spending time talking to your baby, reading, and playing games with him. Though it may be tempting to alternate some of this one on one time with television or videos, these options are not recommended for children under three years of age. Your baby will learn best through human interaction and nurture.
Berger, K. S. (1998). The developing person through the life span (4th ed.). New York: Worth Publishers.