First Word Learning

FirstWord Learning

Undeniably,an infant’s first words are often greeted with overwhelming delightbecause they are the hallmark of the infant’s entrance into asymbolic system of societal communication. According toAltvater-Mackensenand Grossmann (2014),infants begin their word learning expedition by hearing plenty ofspeech but grasping none of the words. These words are saved intheir memory even though the infants attach no significant meaning tothem. The authors observe that a study conducted in the early 1970’sindicated that infants begin to listen to the voice of their motherin the last trimester of pregnancy. This explains why children oftenhave the habit of picking out and responding to female voices morethan male voices (Altvater-Mackensen&amp Grossmann, 2014).Whena baby is born their very first comprehension of words is limited touniversal baby songs, like the beautiful and graceful tones(lullabies) their mothers produce to soothe them. Therefore, each andevery word in the vocabulary collection of an infant has adevelopmental history that emanates with auditory learning from theenvironment (Altvater-Mackensen&amp Grossmann, 2014).To make significant progress in learning their own language, Bunceand Scott (2016) observe that infants have to go beyond listening tospeeches and melodies to breaking down spoken sentences into theircomponent parts, like the vowels and consonants that make up wordsand the words that constitute a sentence.

Whena baby is born, the only things that predominate are crying andvegetative noises. By four months, an infant starts to smile at itsparents and caregivers, making a cooingnoise that gives an indication like it wants to vocally say something(Coll, 2015). When being fed, an infant can frequently lock stareswith her caregiver, while making bubbling and gurgling noises thatsound like “hi.” The sounds made at this point in time are notexactly speech-like, although the noises made closely sound likeconsonants and vowels (Coll, 2015). Between four and ten months, aninfant then begins to produce syllables that are more speech-like,with appropriate “closures” that sound like true consonant andfull resonant vowels (Coll, 2015). This is what is clinicallyreferred to as canonicalbabbling.As initially illustrated, the words that infants learn have adevelopmental history that emanates with auditory learning from theirsurroundings (Altvater-Mackensen&amp Grossmann, 2014).As a result, an infant’s babbling at this stage comprises ofrecurrent syllables like “bababa,”“nanana,”“dadada,”or “mamama.”These are often the articulations that most infants can effortlesslymake at by the time they are celebrating their first birthday orearlier depending on an infant’s precocity.

Itis the opinion of Bunce and Scott (2016) that research has proventhat an infant starts to learn the phonological (sound) forms ofwords like babyby the time they are 8 months old. A study done on children aged oneyear old confirmed this fact. To determine the level of phonologicalknowledge of words, the children were tested by the correctpronunciation and mispronunciations of the word dog,while being shown an actual picture of a dog. The results of theexperiment indicated that the children’s eye fixation on thepicture was considerably abridged when the word dogwas mispronounced starting with the similar sounding word “t,”relative to when the word was properly pronounced (Altvater-Mackensen&amp Grossmann, 2014).

Subsequentstudies also confirmed that the same case happens with mispronouncedspeech sounds like vowels, consonants, and word-medial consonants(Coll, 2015). While learning its first words, an infant makes noisesto get a caregiver’s attention, and perseveres until its needs aregratified. Often, children’s first words are situation-related,such as a child who says “moon” when there is a source of lightin her line of sight. However, over several months, there is what isclinically referred to as the word spurt stage where a baby tries tointernalize an explosion of absolutely newwords. There are some theories proposing that children refine theirphonological representation of words only after they haveinternalized many newwords that sound similar to one another. At this age, children reactdifferently to new words than they do to words they have heardseverally (Coll, 2015).

Bythe time a baby is one year, Coll (2015) notes that it can recognizewords despite changes in intonation and talkers. The lexicaldevelopment enables a child to consider the different phonologicaland nonphonological variations for matching words(Altvater-Mackensen,N. &amp Grossmann, 2014).The significance of this development is that at this stage, a babycan interpret the meanings of words and sentences depending on theutilization of communicating conventions which include thephonological properties of words. At 18 months old, a baby is intransition,trying to internalize the meaning of many words by interpreting thephonological variants of the appropriate pronunciation of words(Bunce &amp Scott, 2016). Even though a baby is naturally fixated onhearing the word dog,upon hearing tog,the phonetic similarity of these words hinders the baby from learningthe newword simply because the word dogis deeply entrenched in its memory.

Astudy conducted in 2007 discovered that 18 month old children easilylearned the word damand daamsimply because they vary in terms of vowel duration (Coll, 2015).Nonetheless, the first fifty words of children are similar acrosscultures because they comprise of the names of the things surroundingthem, like pets, toys, animals, food, fruits, vehicles, and clothing.At this stage of development, the things a child learns are sociallypicked from the environment by virtue of its passive observation ofadults taking, from cable television, or the radio. Experiments haveproven that children pick most of their words at this stage ofdevelopment, especially when adults are talking to them even thoughthey do not understand a single word (Altvater-Mackensen&amp Grossmann, 2014).

Thefirst words of a child are often not similar to those of adultsbecause children have a tendency to overgeneralize their initialwords when referring to items that are beyond their conception (Coll,2016). In this regard, a child can call all lighting objects moon,all animals doggie,all round objects ball,or all men daddy.At eighteen to twenty four months, a child begins to produce itsfirst two-word utterance once they have learned between 100 and 400words. However, the children first learn how to achieve the effect tocomplex expressions by connecting two simple words often put under asingle intonational envelope that has no pause (Coll, 2015).

Despitethe fact that these sentences are not profound, they represent amajor achievement in the vocal expression of meaning. Such sentencesare referred to as telegraphicsentences because the content words are dominant, typically the verbsand nouns (Altvater-Mackensen&amp Grossmann, 2014).Therefore, at this age, the authors note that sentences made bychildren do not carry auxiliary verbs, articles, and prepositions.Most researches on early infant language development determine thatchildren at the two-word sentence stage are mainly worried about theexpression of semantic relationships. A cross study across remotelyrelated languages such as Finnish, France, Samoan, and Germanydiscovered that two year old babies internalizing all these languagesexpressed themselves through a wide range of portraying the leastprobable meaning a mature person could express (Coll, 2015).

Atthree years of age (preschool years), children start to present themissing parts of their sentences by introducing fine tunings thatimmeasurably add to the subtlety of what they can express (Coll,2015). At this level of cognitive development, a child introducesfunctional words that modulate the meaning of an initially unclearsemantic relationship although it might take years to fullyintegrate (Altvater-Mackensen&amp Grossmann, 2014).The degree of development can be determined by counting the number ofmorphemes and auxiliaries in a sentence written by a three year oldchild (Bunce and Scott, 2016). At this level of development, a childalso learns how to produce different complex sentences of differentkinds, which includes asking and answering simple questions (Coll,2015). The most common characteristic of children in this stage ofword development is the overgeneralization of past tenses and plurals(Altvater-Mackensen&amp Grossmann, 2014).As such, it is normal to find a three year old child writing wordslike feets,sheeps,eated,falled,and breaked.All these facts point to the conclusion that at three years, achild’s sentences lack words that complete the sentences by lackingsyntactic structures that are characteristic to the sentences made byadults and they undergo thorough phases of restructuring as thechild develops (Coll, 2015). In addition to learning the inflectionalsystem of language and he basic word order, a child also learns howto produce compound sentences that may include questions, negatives,passives, and imperatives (Coll, 2015).

Atthe age of four, a child has already mastered the basics of how wordsform sentences. Here, a child’s average length of exclamationmislays simply because a child’s utterance becomes like that of anadult by virtue of fluctuations in the length of conversation(Altvater-Mackensen&amp Grossmann, 2014).Even before the age of four years, there are noteworthy incidencesshowing that a baby has good command of grammar whenever there is theneed to communicate. The first complex sentences children of this agecan produce comprise of conjunctions, clauses, and propositions(Bunce &amp Scott, 2016). When babies get to the point where theycan regulate the structures of their sentences, they become capableof articulating a much wider assortment of thoughts and ideas thatare not necessarily dependent on the support of the environment avital step in preparedness for higher levels of word literacy (Bunce&amp Scott, 2016). With time, a child’s vocabulary growsexponentially, which is often bulwarked by the attendance ofkindergarten. Here, children learn more about verbs, nouns, andcategorization of new words into hierarchies of vocabulary (Coll,2015).


Asthis paper has conferred, children often start learning their firstwords before they celebrate their first birthdays. This concept makesthe process of understanding how children learn their first words,making the process of analyzing infant word acquisition lessmysterious. Children learn their first few words from their socialrelationships and circumstances. In these social settings, childrenlearn the many forms of words and phrases, with surprisingphonological accuracy, gathering information about the situationaland linguistic contexts in which these words are used. This knowledgeacquired at this period of infancy provides the foundation on whichchildren build their vocabularies as they grow into adults that usetheir phonological knowledge to communicate fluently.


Altvater-Mackensen,N. &amp Grossmann, T. (2014). Learning to Match Auditory andVisual Speech Cues: Social Influences on Acquisition of PhonologicalCategories. Child Development,86(2), 362-378.

BUNCE,J. &amp SCOTT, R. (2016). Finding meaning in a noisy world:exploring the effects of referential ambiguity and competition on2·5-year-olds’ cross-situational word learning. JournalOf Child Language,1-27.

Coll,C. (2015). Editorial: Continuity and Change in Child Development.Child Development,86(1),7 9.