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There’s More to Your Infant’s Language Skills Than Their First Words Suggest

Baby on phone

Key Takeaways

  • Babies remember both single words and groups of words before they begin to talk
  • Speak to your baby in sentences to help foster language development
  • Use actions to help your baby understand what words mean

Your baby’s first word is an exciting moment and many parents wonder about the significance of this milestone on language development. Researchers from the University of Edinburgh have shown that language development is far more involved than your baby’s first word.

The study published in the journal Cognition found that babies typically remember multiword sequences and single words long before they begin to speak. What they have not determined is whether babies learn speech and language by adding words together, or by breaking down familiar word sequences. 

Testing Sentence Recognition

Researchers looked at 36 babies aged 11-12 months that were not yet talking but were developing normally. The babies’ eye movements were tracked in response to pre-recorded word sequences that were played pseudo-randomly. By assessing where the babies looked when they heard the word sequences, and for how long, indicated whether they recognized familiar word sequences.

The word sequences were divided into those that babies are likely to hear regularly and those that they are not likely to hear often but are almost identical. For example, ‘clap your hands’ and ‘take your hands’ were two combinations used. They are very similar, but the former is more likely to be heard by babies than the latter. 

Dr Barbora Skarabela, PhD

Children don't necessarily learn individual words and only then learn how to combine them. Instead, they learn both words and word combinations at the same time.

— Dr Barbora Skarabela, PhD

Researchers found that the infants paid more attention to the familiar phrases than the unfamiliar phrases, despite them being so similar in sound. Researcher and study co-author Dr Barbora Skarabela says, “...we interpret this to mean that they recognized the familiar word combinations.”

The study used expressionless recordings of the word sequences in a boring room. This helped researchers to isolate that the babies were responding to word combinations and not to the speaker or the expression in the words. 

Understand the Results

The research aimed to discover if infants stored word sequences in their memories or only single words. From this, researchers question if babies learn language through individual words that build up to sentences or the reverse. Do babies learn chunks of sounds that are familiar sentences, and then break that down into words? 

From the study results, Skarabela explains, “Young infants, before the end of the first year, store (or we can say 'remember') multiword combinations, not just single words.” 

“This matters for two reasons,” continues Skarabela. “Children don't necessarily learn individual words and only then learn how to combine them. Instead, they learn both words and word combinations at the same time.”

“Second, they pay attention to and remember multiword combinations long before they start combining words in their speech.” She says.

How Can this Research Help Your Baby’s Language Development?

Most babies will say their first word around the age of 12 months. By 18-24 months you may notice them combining some words to make short sentences. Skarabela’s research indicates that although your baby is not producing words until this age, they are listening and remembering the sounds and word combinations long before then. 

Skarabela reminds parents that their baby is listening to conversations. “Young babies, during the first year of life, are busy listening to the language around them, and not just individual words,” She says, “...babies do that many months before they give us a clue with their first word production.”

Kassie Hanson, SLP

In order to learn words, there must be context in which to understand the meaning of a word.

— Kassie Hanson, SLP

Pediatric speech-language pathologist, Kassie Hanson, suggests that the research findings are very plausible. "It is not surprising to me that babies may learn and encode language in strings of words rather than single words. In order to learn words, there must be context in which to understand the meaning of a word."

She explains that when parents combine short sentences with their actions throughout their day, it can help your baby’s language development.

“As you are going on a walk with baby, point to objects and say things like, ‘Those trees are so big. Do you see the bird in the tree?’” Explains Hanson. “By combining pointing and speech, babies can connect the words you are saying with the items you are pointing to.” 

To further help your baby, Hanson encourages the use of ‘Parentese’. This means that when speaking to your baby, you typically use a higher-pitched, sing-song voice and speak more slowly. 

Most parents find they do this automatically when speaking to their baby. “Research suggests that using this type of speech helps babies to understand language and is beneficial in speech development.” She says.

Does This Apply to All Babies?

Skarabela reminds us that most of what children hear will be in sentence form. “The reality is that 90% of what children hear in parent-child naturalistic spontaneous speech are multiword utterances.”

Therefore, regardless of your baby’s language development, speaking to your baby in short sentences is useful in exposing them to normal language. Through listening to you, they learn.

However, Hanson recommends that for children with language delay, several times a day you can focus on single-word teaching to aid their speech development. 

“For instance, if you are playing with blocks, use the word 'block' several times as you play. After hearing the word multiple times, present the block by holding it in front of them and waiting for them to try to imitate it.” Explains Hanson, “By simplifying the task and using a word repetitively, your child will have a better chance at using the single word.”

For children who are developing normally, Skarabela says “There is no need to teach your baby individual words because they have the ability to learn from phrases and sentences they hear when you engage with them in everyday interactions.”

How to Know Your Baby’s Language is Developing Normally

Not all babies develop at the same rate. But your baby should be showing signs that they are interested in language by 12 months. Hanson outlines how to know your baby is developing language at a standard pace. 

By 12 months, your baby should be: 

  • Understanding simple commands and words like, "come here", "no", "mama", and more
  • Using long strings of babbling with varying sounds
  • Pointing at a few words when they are named
  • Using other gestures like waving goodbye appropriately
  • Attempting to imitate the words you use.

It is recommended that you seek professional advice if by 12 months your baby: 

  • Is not babbling in long strings of sounds
  • Does not respond to his/her name or 
  • Does not respond to other simple commands 
  • Is not showing comprehension of basic words.

What This means For You

Continue to talk to your baby regularly throughout the day. When you talk to your baby throughout the day, they learn about language, their surroundings, and life. 

The NIH offers a free language development checklist for carers here. If you are uncertain about your baby’s language development, reach out to your pediatrician or a local speech therapist for advice. 

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  1. Skarabela B, Ota M, O’Connor R, Arnon I. ‘Clap your hands’ or ‘take your hands’? One-year-olds distinguish between frequent and infrequent multiword phrases. Cognition. 2021;211:104612. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2021.104612

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