What are the first ten words that children know? (Chapter 2.2)

Which words do children generally understand first? The table below shows all of the words that were learned between 8 and 12 months in the parental-questionnaire study discussed in the previous section

Most common first words (arranged by the percentage of 8-12 month-olds who understand each word)Image

Because we are collapsing across a large group of children, we have to make a decision about when we consider a word to be “learned”. For example, if a word is understood by some children at 8 months, but not by others until 10 or 12 months, at what age was it learned? Although any such criteria are always somewhat arbitrary, for the purposes of this table, a word is considered to have been “learned” when it is understood (though not necessarily used) by at least half the children at the relevant age.

Unsurprisingly, Mummy, Daddy and the child’s own name are the first words to be learned, and are understood by roughly 9/10, 8/10 and 7/10 eight-month-olds respectively. Amy and Nick, who we met at the start of this chapter, are typical here: Both responded to their own names well before they could talk, and understood the words Mummy and Daddy even when they formed part of relatively complex sentences (e.g., Blow Daddy a kiss). Interestingly, many of the next words to be learned are not those that label people, places or things (nouns) or actions or events (verbs). Rather, they are words such as peekaboo, bye, hi and no that do not correspond to things in the world as such (what does “no” look like?), but form part of what the researchers called “games and routines”.

This comes as a surprise to many people. If you ask an adult to list children’s earliest words – or, for that matter, just to list words at all – most will come up with a list of comprised entirely of nouns; object words like dog, ball, car, kitty, and so on. The finding that children understand their hellos and goodbyes before their cats and dogs hints at an important fact about language; that its primary function is to grease the wheels of social interaction, rather than to label objects in the world. Have you ever tried to get by in a country where you do not speak a word of the local language, armed only with a phrasebook? If so, you will probably remember that Page 1 lists not the words for the most common objects or actions in that country, but the words for hello and goodbye, yes and no, and please and thank you. Similarly, it is these words that are amongst the first to be understood (and – as we will see in the next chapter – produced) by young children. Again, Amy and Nick, the twins who we met at the start of this chapter, are fairly typical in that, several months before their first birthday, they not only understood, but could even respond appropriately to, simple requests such as no and wave goodbye.

As children near their first birthday, their receptive vocabulary (i.e., the set of words that they understand) does increasingly consist of names for familiar objects (e.g., cup, shoe) and actions (e.g., eat and drink). Two words in particular will remind speakers of non-American varieties of English that this study was conducted in the United States: cookie (presumably British children learn the equivalent, biscuit, at a similar age) and Cheerios (which are sold in Britain, but are by no means the most popular children’s cereal). On average, this is the 22nd word that American children understand, before milk, juice, hug or even yes, which represents quite an achievement for the manufacturer. If young children are really so brand-aware, perhaps we should not be so surprised if we see iPad making its debut in these early vocabulary lists some time soon.

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First Words (Chapter 2.1)

I’m resurrecting this blog as a serialization of my forthcoming (perhaps) book – Small Talk (as opposed to its previous incarnation as a collection of more-or-less randomly-ordered posts). We’ll start with Chapter 2 – first words:

2.1 Girls and Boys

In the course of my research, I have met many parents who are keen to chat about their children’s language development. In particular, a subject that comes up very often is children’s first words. One mother told me – and I don’t think she was joking – that her son’s first word was iPad. My own mother tells the story – with the emphasis on the word story – that my first word was either cakey or Calpol (a purple medicine much loved by babies for its sickly sweet taste).

What these stories tell us (beyond my infant opiate addiction) is that when we talk about children’s first words, what we’re normally talking about are the first words they can say. As every parent knows, though, young children can understand a lot more than they can say; in fact, many children understand their first word as much as six months before they begin talking. Meet, for example, Amy and Nick (not their real names), a pair of twins (non-identical of course) growing up in a picturesque village in the Cheshire countryside. According to their mother, both clearly showed an understanding of certain words well before they could produce them. For example, both would turn around when their name (but not their twin’s name) was called, and knew to stop whatever they were doing upon hearing the word “no”; they would even follow simple commands like “wave goodbye” or “blow Daddy a kiss”.

How typical are these children? That is, at what age do children generally begin to understand words and phrases, and which do they understand first? In order to find out, a group of researchers in the USA[i] gave a self-administered questionnaire to parents of almost 700 young children growing up in New Haven, Seattle and San Diego. The first part of this questionnaire consisted of a list of 396 early words. For each, parents were asked to indicate whether their child (a) understands or (b) both understands and says that particular word. The researchers found that, by 8-10 months, most children were reported as understanding at least some words (some children may have started even earlier, but 8 months was the minimum age of children studied). Indeed, by 11 months, the average child was reported as understanding over 50 words (and this is just including the words on the checklist; presumably most children knew a handful of other words as well – perhaps, for example, the names of siblings or pets).

A point that the researchers emphasized is that the idea of the mythical “typical child” actually hides a huge amount of variation between individual children. For example, at 10 months, whilst children in the top 10% understand a whopping 150 different words, children in the bottom 10% understand only around 10. When you think about it, this really is quite a startling finding. Whilst we all accept that some children learn faster than others, most of us would probably assume that such differences do not emerge until around the point at which children start school, or perhaps even later. Yet the findings of this study demonstrate that these differences start to appear as young as 8 months; a point at which many children have yet to produce their first word. If you are particularly interested in this idea of individual differences, have a look at Appendix A (at the end of the chapter), which illustrates how the number of words understood by the top and bottom 10% and 25% of children diverges as children grow older.

A view that is widely held amongst both parents and professionals is that girls are more linguistically advanced than boys. Indeed, as the authors of this study point out, many pediatricians routinely tell worried parents that slower word learning (or language development in general) is to be expected for boys. This view certainly fits with our stereotype that girls are more interested than boys in language, talking and socializing in general, but is there any actual evidence for it? On the basis of this study, the answer is “yes, but only a little”. Although girls were reported as understanding more words than boys at each age – to the extent of being about one month ahead on average – this difference was swamped by the overall individual differences that we discussed above. This idea of a small difference between two groups being dwarfed by the differences found within each group is quite a difficult one to understand, but here are two different ways to think about it. Imagine that you walk blindfolded into a crèche and are given a group of 10-month-old babies, from which you pick two at random. If you have to guess which understands more words, your chances of success will be exactly 50%/50%. Suppose you are then told that the first child you picked out (Child A) is a boy and the second (Child B) a girl. Armed with this information, you confidently predict that Child B will understand more words. Your chances of success are higher, but – at the most – are only around 51%/49%. How can this be? Because individual girls vary so much with respect to their vocabularies, knowing that a particular child is a girl is not actually much help.

Here is the second way to think about it. Suppose that you picked out 100 10-month-olds from the crèche and lined them up in order of the number of words that they understand, from the least on the left to the most on the right. Although there would be very slightly more boys towards the left end of the line and very slightly more girls toward the right end, girls and boys would be so intermingled that you could not tell which gender understood more words simply by looking at the line.

In fact, even the tiny gender differences observed in the questionnaire may be due to entirely to what psychologists call “demand characteristics”. It is difficult to be certain whether or not a child understands a particular word that she does not say, so if parents “know” that girls are supposed to have higher vocabularies than boys, they may be more inclined to err on the side of generosity for their daughters than their sons. Indeed, when children’s understanding is assessed experimentally (using methods that we will discuss later), rather than relying on parental report, even these small differences often disappear[ii].

NEXT TIME: What are the first 10 words children understand?

[i] Fenson, L., Dale, P., Resnick, S., Bates, E., Thal, D., Hartung, J., & Reilly, J. (1994). Variability in early communication development.  Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 59.

[ii] Houston-Price, C., Mather, E. and Sakkalou, E. (2007) Discrepancy between parental reports of infants’ receptive vocabulary and infants’ behaviour in a preferential looking task. Journal of Child Language, 34 (4). pp. 701-724

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Your Baby can Read Your Mind

Have you ever wondered how your baby learns the meanings of words? For most people, the answer will probably be ‘no: Because word-learning comes so naturally to children, few of us ever stop to think just how difficult it is. To get an idea, think back to the last time you were in a country where you didn’t speak the language. How many words did you manage to learn by listening to the natives? One? Two? None? This is exactly the scenario faced by children. In fact, at least as an adult you have the advantage of knowing something about how words work. For example, you know that the word for “car” doesn’t change depending on the colour of the car. Babies don’t.

Why is word-learning so easy for children when it is so difficult for us? You might imagine that children’s advantage comes from the fact that parents deliberately teach them words. However, this idea quickly breaks down. For example, suppose you point to a cup of juice and say “this is a cup”. How does the child know that the object is called a “cup” as opposed to a “this” or an “is a”? Even if you just say “cup”, how does the child know that “cup” means “cup” as opposed to “look”, “juice”, “finish your drink”, “orange”, and so on? An even if this teaching method did work for object names like “cup”, it wouldn’t work for most other types of word. How would you teach children the meaning of “idea”, “noisy”, “the”, “this”, or “a”? In fact, this idea of “teaching” words to children is pretty much the preserve of middle-class westerners; in some cultures, adults rarely speak to children at all.

So how do children figure out what word goes with what? Research suggests that they do so by using some pretty impressive “mind reading” abilities. Thinking back to the cup example, the way children seem to solve the puzzle is by figuring out what the adult is trying to do with her language. If the adult’s intention is to make the child finish the drink (e.g.., she picks up the cup and holds it to the child’s mouth), then whatever she says probably means something like “drink it!”. If the cup is empty and one of a series of objects that the adult picks up whilst producing a word, then her intention is probably to label the object, and whatever she says probably means “cup”.

These mind-reading abilities have been demonstrated in a number of ingenious experiments. Children hear a new (made up) word such as blicket, and have to figure out what it refers to, out of a number of possible options. In one study, for example the child was given one toy play with whilst the experimenter looked into a bucket containing a different toy. The experimenter then looked into the bucket and said “modi”. The question is, which object did the child think was the modi: the object that the child had been playing with when she heard the word modi, or the object that the speaker had been looking at as she produced the word? From around the age of 18 months, children were able to figure out that the speaker’s intention was to label the object that she herself had been looking at, not the child’s object. Interestingly, children with autism – who are known to struggle particularly with understanding the intentions of others – perform poorly at this task, and sometimes associate the word with their own toy. There is anecdotal evidence of this happening in real life. One child apparently called saucepans “Peter eaters” because his mother had been reciting the nursery rhyme Peter Peter Pumpkin eater whilst handling a pan.

In another study, two-year-old learned a game that involved a new toy (for which they didn’t already have a name) and a new action (spinning this toy using a turntable). After a few runs through the game, the experimenter said simply to the child “Widgit, Jason” (or whatever the child’s name was). The question was whether the child would interpret the experimenter’s utterance as a label for the toy (i.e., give me the widgit) or the new spinning action (i.e., widge it! using the turntable). The answer is that children used their mind-reading abilities to figure it out. If the experimenter looked back and forth at the child and the toy, children assumed that her intention was to label the object, and so picked up the “widgit” and handed it to the experimenter. If the experimenter looked back and forth at the child and the turntable, children assumed that her intention was to request the action, and so proceeded to “widge it”.

Many parents get the feeling that their children somehow know what they’re thinking. These studies demonstrate that – in a sense – they do, and that it is this incredible ability that helps children take their first few steps in word-learning.

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What’s the past-tense of “to text”?

Imagine that you have agreed to send your friend a text message with the directions to a party, and she phones to ask why they haven’t arrived. You sent them an hour ago but obviously – for some reason or other – they haven’t arrived. Which of the following do you say:

a) I texted you an hour ago.

b) I text you an hour ago.

If your answer is “neither, because text is a noun, not a verb”, then nice try, but no marks. Although self-appointed guardians of “correct grammar” often argue that transforming a noun into a verb (e.g., “I like to party“) is some kind of crime against English, nobody raises an eyebrow at “chairing a meeting”, “saddling a horse” or “polishing the furniture”. The only difference is that to text is a relatively new coinage, whilst the others are older. To chair, to saddle and to polish were once equally new and probably met with similar resistance, before being quietly accepted.

If you feel strongly that it has to be texted, you might justify this intuition with the argument that English past-tense forms end in -ed. But actually, -t is a perfectly good ending for an English past-tense form, as in sent (not sended), went (not goed), or hit (not hitted). Neither is there any rule stating that the past-tense form has to be different to the present tense form (e.g., “Every day I hit/cut someone. In fact, I hit/cut someone an hour ago”); nor that verbs that come from nouns require an -ed past-tense (e.g., if a blacksmith has put a shoe on a horse, we say that he shod him, not shoed him, which means something quite different).

So, in fact, there’s no real reason why you can’t use either text or texted as the past-tense of to text. But what has all this got to do with children’s language learning? The answer is that the same reasoning that gives us the “no-change” past-tense form text – if a verb already ends in -t, there’s no need to add anything – leads to errors in children. In the last blog, we saw that if a noun already ends in a -s sound (like horse or dress), it already sounds like a plural. Consequently, children often mistakenly think there’s no need to an -s, and say things like “two horse“. In exactly the same way, if a verb already ends in a -t sound (e.g, want, start, twist), it already sounds like a past-tense form (like walked, talked, missed or kissed, all of which end in a -t sound, albeit one that is spelt “ed” when written down). So when children are attempting to produce the past-tense of these verbs, they often mistakenly think that a “no-change” form is perfectly good. This leads to errors like “Yesterday I want a biscuit so much that I start crying. In the end, I twist my mum’s arm”.

As with the missing -s errors we talked about last time, these errors tend to slip under the radar because, just like text, they sound like pretty good past-tense forms to us too. But listen out when your children are trying to produce the past-tense of -t verbs, especially rarer ones like collect, sort and twist. Even 7-year-olds, who are – relatively speaking – old-age pensioners when it comes to the past-tense, make mistakes with these pretty often.

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This is a box. These are two…

Steven Fry’s recent documentary series, Fry’s Planet Word, included a segment where Jean Berko-Gleason, who published a landmark research paper way back in 1958, ran the same test with a modern-day child. A couple of people that I spoke to about the programme mentioned that they weren’t quite clear exactly what the point of the test was. So I thought for today’s blog it might be interesting to explore this classic study, its findings, and what it tells us about children’s language.

The test goes something like this. The researcher shows the picture a child of a funny-looking creature and says “this is a wug“. The word wug, like the creature itself, is completely made-up; invented for the purposes of the experiment. The experimenter then brings out a new picture that shows two of these creatures and says to the child “so these are two…”. Even young children (the youngest in this study were 4 years old) are generally able to correctly answer “wugs”.

What’s the point of this study? One of the most fundamental rules of English is that to make the plural of a noun (which, for our purposes, we can think of as simply a word that names a person, animal or thing) we add an -s. Whilst, from an adult perspective, this rule seems almost too obvious to be worth discussing, it’s actually quite remarkable how quickly children pick this up. No parent goes around saying “now Johnny, to form the plural of a noun, simply add -s to the singular form”; not that children would understand if they did. Somehow, children work this out all by themselves, many years before they are taught about “nouns” and “plurals” (indeed, many people are never taught explicitly about these things).

But what’s the point of all this wug business? Why didn’t Berko (as she was back then) simply ask children for the plural of cat, dog, chair, table etc? The reason is that if a child is able to say “two cats”, this doesn’t actually provide any evidence that she’s learned the ‘add -s’ rule at all. She may simply have learned, by listening to adults, that cats is the word we use when there’s more than one. In contrast, the child cannot possibly have learned the plural form wugs by listening to adults, as we can say with complete confidence that no adult has ever uttered this word in her presence; it was invented solely for the purposes of the experiment. So if the child can correctly produce wugs, we can tell that she has – somehow -arrived at the ‘add -s‘ rule.

As you have probably noticed by listening to your own children, once they have acquired this rule, they tend to go overboard, adding -s to all kinds of words that actually have different plural forms (e.g., childs, foots and mouses instead of children, feet and mice). These types of errors have been studied extensively in child language research, and it is no exaggeration to say that they could easily fill a book on their own. However, we’ll save these for another blog, as today I want to focus on errors where children go underboard, failing to add -s in cases where they should do, despite the fact that they seem to know the rule perfectly well.

At the point where children are quite happily adding -s to words like cat, dog, chair and table, they systematically fail to do so for words like box, horse, dress and lace. In fact, even four-year olds, most of whom will have acquired this rule somewhere between one and two years earlier, fall down on these words over half of the time. That is, more often that not, they say two box, two horse, two dress or two lace. What do these words have in common? The irregular nature of English spelling hides the fact that all of them already end in an -s sound in singular form (a more regular language might spell them boks, hors, drehs and laes). But four-year-olds don’t know or care about adult spellings; to them, all these words already end in -s. And since they already end in -s, there’s no need to add another one. When you think about it, this point of view is pretty logical in its own way, it just happens to be one that is not shared by adults.

Whilst errors where children add an extra -s (like childs or foots) stick out like a sore thumb, errors where children miss off an -s (two boxs) tend to slip under the radar (possibly because, at some level, hearing the -s tricks us into thinking that a plural form was actually produced). But now you’ve read this, you’ll hear them turning up in loads of different place.


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Your baby’s first word

What was your baby’s first word? How old was she?

When we talk about a baby’s first word, we normally mean the first word that she produced, in which case the answers are most likely Mama/Dada and somewhere between 6 and 12 months. As you’ve probably noticed yourself, though, children often seem to show an understanding of certain words before they are able to produce themselves. So what was the first word your child understood?

This isn’t always easy to tell in everyday life. However, researchers have come up with some simple yet ingenious techniques for finding out which words even very young babies know. One method involves a pair of loudspeakers, each of which plays a loop of recorded speech for as long as the baby looks at that speaker. This allows babies to choose how long to listen to each of two recordings. If the study is set up so that one speaker continually plays the baby’s own name whilst the other plays a different name, 4-month-olds choose to listen longer to their own name. Other studies using the same technique have shown that, from around 6 months, babies recognize other common words such as baby, hands and feet.

Although these studies can tell us which words 6-month-olds recognize, they don’t tell us which words they understand. To answer this question, we need to use a method where babies hear a word (e.g., mummy) and are shown two videos on adjacent screens (e.g., their mum on one, their dad on the other). If children look longer at the matching screen than the non-matching screen, this suggests they know which person the word refers to. Researchers based in Baltimore used this technique to show that 6-month-olds understand the words mummy and daddy and don’t mistakenly extend these to other adults.

So just because your baby can’t talk yet, don’t assume that she isn’t listening. Most likely, she’s already begun to learn not only the sounds of words but their meanings too.

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Does a carpenter carpent?

Over Christmas I read an interesting book called The Etymologicon, based on Mark Forsythe’s Inky Fool blog. The book and blog outline the processes by which new words are formed, one of which is known as back-formation. This happens when speakers incorrectly view one word as having been formed from another, according a pattern that is common in the language. One example discussed is the verb to sidle. According to the Inky Fool, a sideling was originally “a little fellow who stands to one’s side”, but people misanalysed the word as having been formed from the verb sidle+ing, just like hide+ing, glide+ing etc. This is a misanalysis, as the verb to sidle had never existed in the first place. But once it had been invented, speakers assigned it a suitable meaning, and a new word was born.

Children do exactly the same thing when learning language, although their coinages rarely stick. One famous example in the child-language literature is as follows:

Dad: Why can’t you behave?

Son: But Dad, I am being have

The child has “back-formed” have (pronounced to rhyme with grave) from the verb behave on analogy with pairs like quiet/be quiet, noisy/be noisy etc. (this example is often thought to be apocryphal, but one attested source is listed in the links section). Here’s another example, recorded by linguists at Stanford University:

Child: What’s that called?

Mother:  A typewriter.

Child:  No, you’re the typewriter; that’s a typewrite.

If a writer is someone who writes, what does a carpenter do? The answer, according to one of the children studied by these authors (see links section above) is that he carpents.  Similar examples from the same paper include to ham (hit with a hammer), to dag (stab with a dagger) and to hoove (use a popular brand of vacuum cleaner).

Perhaps your own children have come up with similar examples (if so, please feel free to share them in the comments section below). Although children’s coinages rarely make it into the language, they are important in that they demonstrate an ability to recognize patterns in the incoming language, and to use these patterns to produce new words and sentences. As we will see in more detail in future blogs, this is perhaps the single most important ability in language learning.

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