Your newborn baby already uses his voice to tell you things, long before he says his first word. In his early days and weeks, you might notice he uses slightly different cries for a variety of purposes. He may have a hungry cry, for example, that you notice is different from the cry he uses when he’s uncomfortable. By 3 months, he’ll know he can use his voice to tell you when he’s pleased or unhappy; excited or tired. From now on, you’ll hear plenty of coos, gurgles and shouts.
Before your child talks, he listens: to noises around; to human voices and, most importantly, to your voice. He hears your intonation patterns: the tune of your speech as your voice rises and falls. He hears your voice rise in a question, get louder when you’re annoyed, become low and soft when you play baby games with him.
He hears certain sounds repeated again and again. “Teddy”,you say when you give him his toy. “Here’s Teddy.” Or maybe, “Poor Teddy’s on the floor.” Gradually, that combination of four sounds, t-e-dd-y, so strange to him at first, comes to mean the cuddly thing he sucks and hugs.
Now Teddy has a name. At first, though, your baby can’t say Teddy’s name. That’s because the sounds are hard for him to make in the right order, at the right time.
Meanwhile, he enjoys his own noises. “Ga ga” he says, his tongue falling naturally into that position. He likes it, repeats it and finds other sounds that are fun. Soon he starts babbling and finds that you join in, encouraging all the noises, repeating strings of nonsense back to him.
Between 6 months and 1 year, he plays often with babbling noises, trying out all the sounds of speech. He doesn’t stick to his native language, but includes sounds he’ll never need to use. Over time, his babbling begins to sound more and more like your speech, even though there are no real words there yet.
His strings of sounds get longer and he joins them together until he produces something that sounds like the intonation patterns of speech. At this point, parents sometimes feel their baby is trying to talk. He hasn’t got there yet, but as he plays with sounds he prepares himself for his launch into speech.
Real speech begins when sequences his sounds into a meaningful word that real speech begins.
At some point during his sound play, he hits on a combination of sounds that resemble a word.
“Da,” he says as his father picks him up, “Da-da-da.”
Delighted, his father smiles, cuddles him and repeats the word. What a reward. He tries that again. Every time he makes that combination of sounds, at the right time, you celebrate, repeat it and reinforce it. As his accuracy improves, he gets it right every time, encouraged by your excited feedback. There it is: “daddy”: his first word.
Your child’s first word may be something different. Maybe he says “Mama” first.
So when did he say his first real word? Was it when he hit upon the sounds by accident? Perhaps when he looked at Daddy (or Mummy) and said the same sounds again, by accident, or maybe later, when he looked at Daddy and said with intent “Dada?”
A real word is one where the group of sounds fit together to label something. Language is so much more than a string of sounds, grouped together in random patterns. Without meaning, speech is a useless jumble.
In order to use his speech meaningfully, your child learns to understand the purpose of words, phrases and sentences. Then he’s ready to use a collection of words, in different orders with different purposes.
For the moment, be delighted that your child, at around a year to 15 months old, has produced his first meaningful word. He’s made a giant leap in the right direction.