Whether you’re hoping your baby utters your name before your partner’s (like Jimmy Fallon did) or you’re teaching him to repeat animal sounds, you’re probably listening closely for his first word. You might even take a video of him saying it, or write it down in his baby book. After all, it’s a major infant milestone. But one dad took his records a step further — to Excel spreadsheet-level documentation.
Jon Jivan wrote down his baby’s first 100 words and plotted each one as a point on a graph corresponding to the age at which his son said the word. The resulting data shows how quickly a child’s vocabulary expands and, if you look closely, gives some hints about the things that often influence a young child’s word acquisition: family (dada, mamma, baby, papa, nana), television (Abby, Elmo, Mickey), and common toddler nouns, including foods, body parts and animals.
How the dad studied his son’s language
As any parent knows, toddler pronunciation can be tough to decipher, so Jivan describes his criteria in the comments accompanying his graphs. “All words recorded were said in context (not simply a parroting of sounds) and had to be witnessed by both myself and my wife for confirmation,” he writes. “I did not go by perfect pronunciation, but it had to be about 75 percent there.” He goes on to explain that he didn’t count when his son said “mayma” to mean “banana” (even though they knew what he meant), but he did count “eh-bo” for “elbow.”
The baby’s first word was “uh oh” at almost 8 months, followed by “dada” at 10 months, and “mamma” at 12 months. The next word, “kitty,” wasn’t said until almost 15 months. But his following word, “no,” at 16 months kicked off a dramatic growth in vocabulary, with new words spoken almost daily (and sometimes more than one per day). In fact, while the first three words were spaced out over a four-month span, the next 97 were spoken in the same length of time.
What this means for parents
While you might be too busy cutting sandwiches in quarters or helping your toddler navigate his first steps to keep your own detailed language log, there are lessons you can take from Jivan’s data:
- Expect your baby’s vocabulary to explode around 18 months. At this point on the chart, Jivan’s son is learning multiple words per day. The slope gets so steep in this range, it approaches a vertical line. Many children also start to combine words at this age (“No milk” or “More cookies”). Your little one may not be able to make certain sounds, like “l” or “th,” but his attempts at pronunciation and ability to choose the correct word show he’s on his way to the 2,000 to 3,000 words he’ll have by age 3.
- Narrating your activities helps influence language. Did you notice that “Yahtzee” was among the first 40 words on Jivan’s chart? He notes in his comments that he has a game of Disney Yahtzee and he, his wife and son play a simplified version of it together. Eventually, his son started “playing” on his own and yelling, “Yahtzee!” Repetition and narration are great tools for teaching words and phrases. So tell your child all the steps you take as you make dinner, explain what you see during your stroller walks and let her have lots of FaceTime “conversations” with Grandma and Grandpa.
- Reading is fundamental. Many parents will recognize words from the book Goodnight Moon on the graph, including “mouse,” “house,” “moon” and “mush.” One commenter asked about this, and Jivan responded enthusiastically. “You called it!” he writes. “It’s one of his favorites. He loves looking for the mouse on each page of the book.” Reading to your baby helps him understand words before he can start saying them and, eventually, he’ll incorporate those words into his vocabulary.
- Don’t forget, children develop differently. If your 20 month old’s vocabulary doesn’t resemble this chart, don’t freak out. There is a wide window for normal speech development. There are also common reasons for speech delays you might consider. For example, bilingual children often have fewer words in each language early on, but they typically catch up to their peers without intervention. Also, children whose parents anticipate their needs quickly may not speak up as much because they don’t need to demand milk or request a lovey. If you think your child does have a speech delay, talk to your pediatrician to figure out if help is needed.
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