Nothing, nothing, everything
Slightly before age one, a baby starts to produce long strings of sounds, a repetitive combination like "nanananana." This is called canonic babbling. After the babbling stage, 'jargon' sets in. This is an amazing phase in language development from a parent's perspective. The baby all of a sudden starts to talk in a language which could be from outer space -- commenting, expressing surprise, asking questions, etc., yet you can't understand a single word of it. Never mind multilingualism, baby clearly invented her very own language! Vocalization is a game to your baby who is busy experimenting with using her tongue, teeth, palate, and vocal chords to make all sorts of funny noises. You may notice your child favoring certain sounds ("ka" or "da," for example), repeating them over and over because she likes the way they sound and how her mouth feels when she says them. Your baby is actually practicing the rhythm, melody, syllable stress and speech sounds she listened so intently to over the last few months. Soon, real words will be added to the mix. How does that happen?
The main challenge is linking the sounds baby hears to the objects or concepts she knows. This sound-object linking is a critical achievement on the path to the first word. At 10-12 months, your baby starts to grasp that sounds are tied to labeling the world around her (roughly the time she learns to wave bye-bye). Initially, your baby links sounds to objects and people, but linking to actions and concepts soon follows. Building vocabulary, seemingly the most important aspect of language, is actually not influenced by any particular critical period. Adults are as good at learning vocabulary as children are (although the process is different). For a child, it takes exposure to objects and words in many contexts to learn them, particularly to separate it from something similar. How does she know where the delineation is between her foot and the toes?
Researchers believe that babies employ a set of rules or 'naming assumptions' when linking a sound to an object. How do babies know that you mean that cat sitting right there and not the cat and the chair its sitting on or just the cat's tail? Amazingly enough, a baby applies just the right level of 'generalization' to cope with the situation. She starts with learning whole objects and creates large groups or classes for items and only one name per group. Generalization helps her to understand that the photo, the drawing, the soft toy, and the animal next door -- although different representations -- are all still cats. By the same token, it's very common for a baby to initially call all four-legged animals "cat," or to say "Dad" when seeing the UPS man or the pizza delivery guy. Soon after this stage, babies begin to subdivide the large groups into smaller and smaller units. So, once they can differentiate between dog, cat, and squirrel, it is time to start discussing tails.
Babies take a while to learn each new word. It takes several months to go from the first word to the next few dozen, and even longer when there are more languages involved. Plus, a first word is seldom a perfect word, as it's usually shortened or simplified to "mo" for more, "do" for dog, etc. (It takes several years to fine-tune the pronunciation to get to adult speech.) However, there seems to be a critical mass at around 50 words, and when they reach that point, vocabulary increases exponentially. All of a sudden, 'words-r-us'.
Actually, the child changes methods for learning words at this point. Simply put, words initially are stored as complete units, but as the number of memorized words increases, this method doesn't scale. Rather, baby builds a database of the sounds, intonations, and rules to govern the production of words. Each word is now assembled in 'real-time' rather than presented in the ready-made form. This is really a very advanced processing method that their amazing little brains perform! Baby has developed a system that provides fast and reliable access to the word components, rather than searching through an entire lexicon for each individual word. Using this technique, children between 2 and 4 years of age can average an astonishing 8 new words a day -- a new word every two waking hours. At 6 years, she understands some 13,000 words, even though she doesn't use all of them in her speech.
As in all aspects of baby skills, there are great individual differences. Some babies start this vocabulary explosion, so-called 'fast mapping,' at 18 months, while others wait until well after 24 months. This word explosion coincides with increased activity in parts of the brain involved in storing and retrieving vocabulary. But, does the growth spurt in the brain activate the learning, or does the critical mass of spoken words set off a growth spurt in the linguistic brain? Science has yet to determine the answer to this question.
Researchers have found, however, that common first words in all languages include names of familiar people, words associated with eating and drinking, words for clothes and for household objects -- particularly the ones that make sounds (telephone), or move (toy train), words for animals and their sounds, as well as social expressions like "hello" and "good-bye", not to mention the universal favorite among strong-willed toddlers everywhere: "No."
A curious factoid: despite the similarities between languages, a few lifestyle and cultural aspects are evident in the first words babies learn. According to an extensive study at Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, differences were recorded between American, Japanese, Swedish, and French babies. However clichéd it may sound, French babies actually did talk more about food. They knew about the same number of words for food as babies from other countries, but used them markedly more often. They also had more terms to designate clothes. American babies were the champions of objects -- from the people around them to cartoon characters -- having more proper nouns in their vocabulary than other children. On the other hand, the American babies possessed fewer verbs and adjectives than other babies. Together with Japanese babies, American infants used the most social expressions, far more than the Swedish or French. Swedish babies' first words included few greeting words, but they seemed the most active of the lot, employing more verbs associated with playground and park activities. Japanese babies mentioned natural elements like rain, cloud, leaf, sun the most, and they also made the most frequent use of polite phrases such as "thank you," "please," and "hello."
Look at the different sections for what baby understands and can say at these stages:
- 0-12 months: The first year starts small, and is all about sounds. The early language milestones are virtually identical for all babies, regardless of the language or number of languages learned.
- 24-36 months: Now your child is sorting out the grammar and increasing the vocabulary by leaps and bounds. Your child may be slightly delayed compared to monolingual peers going into the third year, but you'll notice the gap closing quickly at the tail end.