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What Decides a Baby's First Words?

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Lisa Belkin Headshot

What Decides a Baby's First Words?

Posted: Updated:

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

My mother insists that my first word was not actually a word, but rather a sentence. By her telling, she came to lift me out of my crib after a nap one afternoon and I pointed a pudgy finger at the mobile overhead and said "Mommy, Daddy, look at the birdy."

I have heard that story all my life. Over the years the tale has been used as evidence that I have always had a way with words; that I've long refused to do things until I could do them well; that whether speaking or writing I will never use one word when six will do.

But is the story true? I have no idea. I certainly don't remember, and I suspect my mother doesn't either. She thinks she does, in the way that parents blend and mesh and soften their children's lives into a narrative. I suspect I've done the same with my own children's first words. Can the sounds we choose first really capture who we will become over time? Or do we give them added meaning with hindsight, because we have waited for them so long?

My firstborn's first word was "dat." By "dat" he meant "that" and I marveled at how he sluiced through the complexities of grammar and found the sound that meant absolutely everything. "Dat", "dat", "dat", he said all day, pointing his adorable chubby fingers at everything in his path. He grew up to notice everything, and to share his thoughts about everything with everyone.

Can the sounds we choose first really capture who we will become over time? Or do we give them added meaning with hindsight, because we have waited for them so long? -- Lisa Belkin

His younger brother's first word was "more." Also useful. Also prescient. "More" as he climbed into his high chair. "More" when he wanted to stay in the bath. "More" when he preferred awake time to bedtime. He still wants more. And embraces all of it.

The baby books I read as a young parent told me that their first words would be ones that were easiest to say. Starting with a hard consonant. Probably a D. Don't be offended Mama, if they begin with Dada. It's just linguistics. It's not personal.

Newer studies, though, show that the nature of first words vary by culture. Here in the U.S., children are far more likely to start with a common noun than children in Beijing; and Chinese children are much more likely to begin with a name of a person or with a verb than are Americans.

Which means we can bring more to first words than just ease of pronunciation. They are infused with context, and worldview. The reason they thrill us as parents is that they are our first glimpse of what is going on in that little noggin.

When my oldest was learning to talk I started to teach him to chant a silly cheer from my college days. I'd barely gotten through the first words when he joined in -- he'd heard it, learned it, at my last reunion, before he had words. Such a sweet surprise, that there are thoughts within, unlocked by language.

What was your child's first word? Did it reveal something of who they are?

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