Recent stays with our grandchildren showed us how the youngest 2 are getting on with acquiring language.
The youngest is 13 months old. He started to produce recognisable words a couple of months ago. From the 4 days we spent with him, I would guess that he can produce around 10 to 20 words. They are all names of family members and nouns denoting foodstuffs and objects in his immediate surroundings.
His pronunciation is still fairly indistinct, so it is not always possible to tell what word he is trying to produce, or even whether he intends a sound to be a word at all.
His mother’s first words
When his mother was just starting to talk, I listed all of the 7 words I had heard her produce. She must have been around the same age, probably a month or 2 younger. The list gives an interesting insight into what features of the world were salient for her then. Here is the list, with approximate pronunciation and meaning:
- ma (‘mummy’)
- da (‘daddy’)
- da (‘dog’)
- da (‘duck’)
- car (‘car’)
- key (‘key’)
- carkey (‘car key’)
Interestingly, 3 of the words sounded identical (da, da and da). Judging from their meanings, they must have just sounded the same (homophonous), rather than being one single word with 3 meanings (polysemous).
Perhaps the similarity in sound gave her a push to learn ‘dog’ and ‘duck’ early. I doubt whether she had seen a duck by that age, but ducks did feature in some of her books, including ones where a duck hides on every page. I suspect she had seen dogs both in books and in real life.
Cars and keys must have figured in her mind very prominently for them to become 3 of her first 7 words. And ‘carkey’ was her 1st two-syllable word.
The youngest one’s cousin is 20 months old. From the 3 days we spent with her, I guess that she can produce several dozen words. Her words too are almost all names and nouns. I did hear one adjective (cold). Also, she produced 2 or 3 words that were probably nouns, but might have been the homophonous verb (eg walk).
She is still definitely at the ‘one-word’ stage, just producing single words and not combining them. Children generally start joining 2 words together by just before, or just after, their 2nd birthday. She did say one thing that made me wonder whether she may be about to start doing that. She pointed at a glass and said ‘drink’, then after a short pause she pointed at it again and said ‘cold’. Because she paused and pointed twice, this was probably 2 separate statements, but maybe she was trying to link the words into a single statement.
Not just things she can see
She can already use words to refer to something not in her sight, and is just starting to use words referring to more abstract concepts. We went for a few walks, but on several occasions she decided that she wanted to go for a walk. She would do this by one (or usually several!) of the following words and actions:
- saying ‘coat’ or ‘shoes’, perhaps also pointing in the rough direction of where her coat and shoes are kept (though not being able to see them).
- saying ‘car’ and pointing vigorously at the window. The car is generally parked there, but she can’t usually see the car. (Many walks with her start with a short car journey to get to a park.)
- saying ‘walk’.
Her pronunciation is already much clearer and cleaner than her younger cousin. Of course, she still pronounces words like a young child, not like an adult, but I heard only a couple of things that differ strikingly from adult pronunciation:
- she pronounces ‘coat’ like ‘goat’, with the voiced consonant [g] instead of its unvoiced counterpart [c]. Excessive voicing is a common feature of pronunciation by young children. Learning some English Consonants – Language Miscellany
- her pronunciation of the initial consonant in ‘shoe’ is somewhat indistinct.