When do babies say their first words?

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Babies make lots of communicative noises, but coos, gurgles, and cries aren't true speech. When do babies say their first words? When do they develop the ability to express themselves with language?

Experiments indicate that babies understand certain words -- like the names of everyday objects -- as early as 6 months. Around this same time, about half of all babies have begun babbling in ways that sound very speech-like.

This suggests that babies as young as 6 months might be capable of speaking a word -- putting together simple syllables (like "ba ba") to express a concrete meaning (like "bottle").

For other babies, this language milestone might not come until 9 months, or 12 months, or even a bit later. But by 14 months most babies will experience a rapid increase in their ability to comprehend and produce speech.

Here are the details about when babies start talking -- and what to look for if you're concerned about developmental delays.

The emergence of "canonical babbling" -- when babies practice speaking syllables like "ma ma ma"

From birth onwards, babies make a variety of vocal sounds. But it isn't until around 4-10 months that babies begin repeating sounds that we recognize as true speech syllables -- syllables that include both a consonant and a vowel, like "ma ma ma" or "ba ba ba" (Oller et al 2001; Oller et al 1998).

This is called canonical babbling, and it's a precursor to speech. Babies are practicing the pronunciation of syllables that will become the building blocks of true words.

But where do we draw the line between babbling and a baby's first words? When children are learning to talk, their pronunciation is far from perfect. They do their best to approximate the sounds they hear, and the results might sound like babbling, even though they intend their sounds to function as real words.

For example, what if your baby consistently says "ba ba" when she's given a bottle? Maybe she is deliberately and intentionally trying to say "bottle." If so, that's a word -- albeit an imperfectly pronounced one.

So the question, "when do babies say their first words?" depends not only on the sounds they make, but on whether or not babies have figured out what the sounds are supposed to mean. How early do babies crack the code?

Evidence that even 6-month-old infants can understand certain words

Researchers have designed a clever way to test word comprehension in babies.

First, babies sit on their mothers' laps while facing an electronic screen. Then a series of images are presented to the babies -- images of everyday items. The mothers are blindfolded, so they can't know what, exactly, their babies can see. But the mothers wear earphones so they can receive instructions from experimenters about what to tell their babies.

copyright Bergelson and Swingley (2013)

With each trial, multiple items appear simultaneously at different locations on the screen.  And the mothers are told to say something -- to repeat back a phrase or question that singles out one object by name.

For example, if the screen displays two items -- a nose on the left and a spoon on the right -- the mother might be told to say, "Do you see the spoon?"

How do babies react?

Researchers have consistently found that babies as young as 6 months tend to look more at the items their mothers speak about. They appear to understand many words, including the names of their parents (e.g., "Mama" and "Daddy"), as well words that refer body parts and food (Tinkoff and Jusczyk 1999; Tinkoff and Jusczyk 2012; Bergelson and Swingley 2012; Bergelson and Swingley 2015; Bergelson and Aslin 2017). 

As you would expect, babies are more likely to have learned the meaning of words that their parents have used in conversation with them every day. And some situations may be especially conducive to learning. For instance, during meal times, caregivers typically interact with their babies face to face, and they may repeat certain key words (like the names of utensils and food items) again and again. This makes it easier for babies to figure out what parents are trying to communicate.

So if your baby seems to understand what the word "bottle" means, and says something like "ba ba" to request his bottle, I think it's reasonable to assume he's making use of a genuine word -- even if he's under 9 months old.

But if your baby isn't speaking yet, when should you worry?

Researchers emphasize that it's normal for babies to vary quite a bit in the timing of their speech milestones. But there are guidelines for identifying children that seem to be developing more slowly than normal.

Late onset of canonical babbling

As noted above, canonical babbling typically emerges between 4 and 10 months. Babies who don't show signs of canonical babbling by the end of this period may be at risk for future language problems (Lomander et al 2017). So if you aren't hearing those syllables by 9 months, this is something you'll want to monitor.  Talk to your pediatrician about your concerns.

No words by 13 months

Throughout the world, infants are typically speaking their first words by 11-13 months, and research suggests that most babies show major improvements in their ability to understand speech by 14 months (Bergelson and Swingley 2012).  So if your baby is approaching 14 months and still hasn't spoken any words, consult with your pediatrician.

Timely intervention can get children back on track

When babies lag behind, that doesn't always mean that something is wrong. But if there is an underlying problem, it's best to identify it early in development. Modern speech therapists have developed effective interventions for children with speech delays, and the earlier children begin, the sooner children will catch up.

More reading

Babies need our help learning language. Like adults who learn to speak a foreign language, babies benefit from being included in conversation. For more information about the power of one-on-one communication in teaching babies to understand and speak words, see this article.


References: When do babies say their first words?

Bergelson E and Swingley D. 2015. Early Word Comprehension in Infants: Replication and Extension. Lang Learn Dev. 11(4):369-380.

Bergelson E and Swingley D. 2012. At 6-9 months, human infants know the meanings of many common nouns. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 109(9):3253-8

Bergelson E and Aslin RN. 2017.Nature and origins of the lexicon in 6-mo-olds. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 114(49):12916-12921.

Lohmander A, Holm K, Eriksson S, and Lieberman M1,2. Observation method identifies that a lack of canonical babbling can indicate future speech and language problems. Acta Paediatr. 106(6):935-943.

Oller DK, Eilers RE, and Basinger D. 2001. Intuitive identification of infant vocal sounds by parents. Developmental Science. 4:49–60.

Oller DK, Eilers RE, Neal AR, and Cobo-Lewis AB. 1998. Late onset canonical babbling: a possible early marker of abnormal development. Am J Ment Retard. 103(3):249-63.

Syrnyk C and Meints K. 2017. Bye-bye mummy - Word comprehension in 9-month-old infants. Br J Dev Psychol. 35(2):202-217.

Tincoff R and Jusczyk PW. 2012. Six-Month-Olds Comprehend Words That Refer to Parts of the Body. Infancy. 17(4):432–444.

Tincoff R and Jusczyk PW. 1999. Some Beginnings of Word Comprehension in 6-Month-Olds. Psychological Science.  10(2):172–175.

Syrnyk C and Meints K. 2017. Bye-bye mummy - Word comprehension in 9-month-old infants. Br J Dev Psychol. 35(2):202-217.

Content of "When do babies say their first words" last modified 3/2018

Image of baby communicating with older sister by cheeseslave / flickr

Image of experimental slide derived from images provided in a PLoS One paper by Bergelson and Swingely:

Bergelson E and Swingley D. 2013. Young toddlers' word comprehension is flexible and efficient. PLoS One. 8(8):e73359.

This isn't the same paper cited in the article above, but the images in it are highly similar to those that the authors used in their 2012 study of 6-9 month old infants. The imagery from the 2013 paper is copyright © 2013 Bergelson, Swingley and available under the Creative Commons Attribution License.







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