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
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.