Learning the Meaning of Words (Speech Question 2 of 7)

Dorothy Dougherty, MA, provides speech therapy for children just learning to speak, and she is the author of How to Talk to Your Baby. In this series, she answers the questions that new parents most frequently ask her.

How will my child learn what words mean?

Nothing is more anticipated and exciting as your child’s first word. However, before he begins to say a word, he must hear that word many times and understand its meaning. Beginning around seven to nine months, most children have begun to understand what different words mean. At first, your child will understand many more words than he can say. The average twelve-month-old child understands about 55 words, but can only say one or two. By sixteen months, most children can understand about 170 words, but can only express about twenty-five of them.

Researchers believe that babies are born with three basic assumptions, which help them simplify what words mean. First, children innately know that labels belong to whole objects, not just a part or a quality of something. For example, they understand that the word "cup" refers to the whole item, not just the handle. Second, children assume that a word label does not refer to just one thing, but a class of things. This enables them to make generalizations, although not always correct ones. Your child may assume that because a beach ball is a ball, and a baseball is a ball, an orange is a ball too. Third, children assume that everything with a name has only one name.

The natural way for your baby to learn the meaning of words is to listen to you talk in relation to the events going on around you. In this manner, he will learn to associate the words you say with the actions, objects, or thoughts you describe. Experts believe the more "live" language your baby hears, the greater his vocabulary, and the greater his IQ. New brain research tells us that this is because frequent daily exposure to words helps brain pathways that foster language learning to develop more fully. One researcher from Chicago found that by age two, children of talkative mothers said twice as many words as children of mothers who cared for them silently.

It is important to remember that just because your baby isn't talking yet, it doesn’t mean he is not listening and learning the meaning of words and actions. That first "show-stopping" word will most likely be the name of a person, or thing that he has heard often.

articles/phw2483.htm">Question #1 -- Early Communication

articles/phw2485.htm">Question #3 -- Growing Up Bilingual

articles/phw2486.htm">Question #4 -- Stuttering

articles/phw2487.htm">Question #5 -- Sound Deadlines

Question #6 -- When Should I Be Concerned?

Question #7 -- Professional Speech Therapy