When my son Joshua was 8 months old, I was ecstatic to hear him say "huhh" as I cuddled him in my arms. I always said "hug" when we embraced, so I marked the sound as his first word in his baby book. Yet it wasn't until he was 1 that Joshua began to understand that he was supposed to give me a hug when I said "hug."
The shift from babbling to real words is a gradual process that takes place in a series of steps. First, many babies invent protowords -- made-up words linking sound to meaning, like saying "muhmuhmuh" to indicate that they want to be picked up.
They begin to use words imprecisely at about 1 year, using a word only in one context or too broadly. For example, when he was 15 months old, Joshua called his rubber toy "frog" but never used the word when he saw a frog in a picture.
Between 18 and 21 months, toddlers begin acquiring new words at breakneck speed, a phenomenon known as the naming explosion. "They go from learning one to two new words per week to learning as many as nine new words a day," says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Temple University, in Philadelphia, and coauthor of How Babies Talk: The Magic and Mystery of Language in the First Three Years of Life (Dutton, 1999).
Some experts think that the naming explosion occurs once children discover that if their cup has a name and their daddy has a name, then everything else must have a name too. "Once they make that realization, they want to find out the names of everything around them, so they'll frequently ask 'Whaddat?' " says Dr. Hirsh-Pasek.
Next, children begin to form partial sentences, such as "Me eat!" At this point, they may understand simple grammar, even though they don't follow these rules in their speech.
Children constantly test words and watch you for feedback to help them acquire language, so it's crucial to help your child express herself. "Many studies have shown a strong relationship between how much you talk to your kids and how fast they develop language skills," says Elizabeth Bates, Ph.D., a professor of cognitive science and psychology at the University of California San Diego. Here's how to help: