Baby Talk

Your baby is on the brink of speaking. Here's why there's no such thing as talking nonsense.
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Matthew Rodgers

At 8 months, your baby is on the brink of some important language discoveries. She's beginning to understand that certain objects are associated with certain words and that words and gestures (not just crying!) can get her what she wants. This ability to understand what is being said is called receptive language, and it develops long before spoken language. In fact, the process begins at birth, but it isn't until the second half of the first year that a child starts to pick out individual words from the blur of sounds she hears.

This recognition usually begins with her name, and by the time she is 8 to 9 months old has progressed to include "Mommy" and "Daddy," and maybe even a few favorite things, such as "bottle" and "juice." By 13 months, your baby's comprehension vocabulary may range from 15 to as many as 100 words.

Yet, even if your baby looks at the cat whenever you say "kitty," this doesn't mean he'll be saying "kitty" next. Most infants don't utter their true first words (called productive language) until they are 10 to 14 months old-and these words often have no connection to those they first understand.

For most babies, the process of speaking starts at about 6 months with babbling-uttering language-like single-syllable cooing noises such as "maaa" and "paaa," then waiting to hear your reply. Toward the end of the seventh month, these cooing noises will become two-syllable sounds, such as "la-la."

By the end of the eighth month, your baby's speech will have probably become increasingly elaborate. Words will contain several syllables, such as "la-la-la," and he'll add inflections and emphasis to his voice. Soon after, your baby will combine different syllable sounds into more complicated "sentences," such as "Um-ma-da-dee." Once your baby starts talking this way, or "jargoning," as it's called, the patterns of his chattering will be so realistic that he'll sound like he really is speaking-just in another language. Now he's really on the threshold of producing his first true words!

Pinpointing the moment when the first words are spoken can be difficult. By the time their babies are jargoning, most parents are so eager to catch the official first words that they're likely to find them among the same sounds that the baby has been making for months. But a sound isn't a true first word until it is used consistently and exclusively to refer to one particular object. A week or two before they utter their true first words, most babies will spend a confused couple of weeks assigning any old sound to an object. Eventually, they'll start using the same sound. It doesn't have to be the correct sound, however, to count as the first word. If your child continually refers to a dog as "jig," she's communicating.

What's your baby's first word likely to be? Your guess is as good as anyone's-and maybe better. That's because the sounds that occur in a baby's first words are usually those he's heard most frequently. Although that could well be "Ma-ma" or "Da-da," it's also likely to be something like "turtur" if you have a turtle! Another thing to keep in mind: Just because your baby says the same word you do doesn't mean it has the same meaning. For example, "Dada" can refer to any man, not just his father, and "Mama" might mean "Hold me."

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