When is a word a word?

Many of us can picture that moment in time when our children spoke their first word. We know that there are typical milestones for learning language, but how many times do children have to say a word before we can count it? Just how many times do we need to hear them utter ‘gone’ before we can include it in that magic number of words they should say by the time they reach a certain age?

Children learn new words by hearing them spoken around them and then by attempting to say them.  Typically, children begin with strings of noise and babble, which is their way of experimenting with sounds.  But when those ‘ma-mas’ and ‘da-das’ start to change into words with meaning attached, in this case referring to mum and dad, it’s an amazing developmental milestone! These meaningful words when used consistently can be said to have been added to their vocabulary.

But just how consistently must they use them? Children will usually say words once or twice but then gradually start to use them more, especially if the word they use is met with either lots of praise, or achieving an end goal – they get that cup or ball they wanted.  It is very normal for a child in the early stages of learning language, to say or echo a word but not to repeat it again for a bit.  This could be because they didn’t really add it to their vocabulary but simply ‘copied’ it or it could be because there was no opportunity to use it again so it wasn’t added to their store of words. You may find however, with repetition and consistent modelling from an adult, that it pops up again in a few days, or even a week or two later.

Sometimes, the words children use as they begin to talk are not clear, as speech sounds also develop gradually.   So when children start to say words, they might not sound like how you or I would say them. For example a ‘bus’ may be a ‘bu’ and that favourite ‘cup’ may be a ‘tup’.  What we need to work out is whether they using that version of the word consistently to ask for something or label it?  If so, then we can count that as a word. The same can be said for animal sounds and other symbolic noises such as ‘chu chu’ for a ‘train’. So if a child is saying ‘meow’ for cat they are using a word to show they understand what it is. In this case, you could try copying the sound back and adding in the name of the animal ‘meow, yes the cat says meow, you see a cat!’

If you are wondering how your child is progressing, this handy Progress Checker will give you an idea. If you are worried about your child, or would just like some ideas about how to help your child with their language development why not get in touch with the free I CAN Help service? You can speak to a speech and language therapist for advice and information.

Many parents find themselves worrying about whether their children are using enough words at the right age. Something as simple as keeping a word diary can help to keep track of how children are doing, which words they are using and whether they said them only once or many times. Remember children may not always say words like we do!