Some Words Come First, But Why?

By Beth Weinhouse

Shared by Tracey
I admit it. I was more than a little bit hurt when my son said “da da” before he said “ma ma.” But I shouldn’t have taken it so personally. In fact, these very first “words” may not have had any real meaning at all.

I probably should have realized that when my son happily said “da da” not only to his father, but to his teddy bear and people in the supermarket.

Sounds like “D.” “There are certain sounds, certain hard consonants like “d”, that are very natural for babies to make,” explains Kathleen Alfano, Ph.D. Former Director of Child Research for Fisher-Price. “It has to do with the way breath comes out of their mouth, the way their lips go together, the way their tongues move.”

Regardless of the actual first sounds/words babies say, they all follow a similar path to them. They start experimenting with their voice and babbling when they’re just a few months old. “They hear us say sounds — to them they’re just sounds — and then they try to make sounds, too,” says Dr. Alfano.

At first, those sounds don’t really mean anything, but we adults assign them meaning. My baby’s first “da da” might not have meant anything at all, but I latched on to it because it’s a word I recognized. We don’t think our children are saying anything meaningful, for example, when they say “goo goo” or “ga ga,” although those sounds are just as important a developmental step to language as “da da” is.

Jibber Jabber. Or Not? “It may still be just jibber jabber, but we hear a word that sounds familiar and think it makes sense,” says Dr. Alfano. Eventually, we can help our babies make sense of what they’re saying and use words for communication, too.

There’s no question my husband and I latched on to the meaning of my son’s early babbling. And I think we helped give those syllables meaning, too. For instance, my son used to say “moo” a lot. So we’d say, “What does the cow say?” and he’d say, “moo!” and then we’d cheer and clap for him. Then we’d take him outside in the evening and point to the bright object in the sky. “What’s that?” we’d prompt. “Moo(n)!” he’d happily respond, and we’d cheer again. He soon learned that his "moo" was more than just a random sound.

Single Syllables. That’s exactly how kids learn to put meaning to some of their speech. They also soon get better at imitating what we say. “Bottle” might become “ba” or “ba ba.” “Milk” might be “mip.” But now they’re communicating. They might use single syllable words like “up” to tell someone they want to be picked up.

It all progresses so quickly from there. Words get strung together into phrases (“me go”). Then toddlers start using words with multiple syllables, making them into sentences. And after wondering for so long when your baby would be able to talk to you, before you know it you’ll be hearing, “Hey mom, can I have the car keys?”

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Beth Weinhouse is an award-winning journalist who specializes in writing about parenting issues and women's health. She's been an editor at Ladies' Home Journal and Parenting magazines, and her work has appeared in dozens of consumer magazines and websites.

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Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.