First Words :
The First Word with specific meaning uttered by an infant is usually ‘mama’ or ‘dada’ , and is directed at parents as they chatter to their offspring. It is a moment of great joy, and parents are usually keen to demonstrate the passing of this important threshold to their friends. Unfortunately, when the infant sees an old friend of his fathers’s peering down at him, he is liable to call him ‘dada’ as well.
This is merely a reflection of the fact that, as yet, the infant is only just beginning to put word to person. Mother may also be called ‘dada’ , and father ‘mama’ , but little by little the links between specific sounds and specific individuals are established. It is this stage that is the true passing of a major threshold.
The pre-verbal phase
Before words are spoken with a specific meaning, however, there is one final phase of undirected sound-making. This arrives at about seven months and consists of making two-syllable words. Usually the first syllable is the same as the second one, as with ‘mumum’ , ‘dadad’ or ‘booboo’ . The baby is now exploring, not only more complicated double sounds, but also trying out variations in volume, pitch and speed. He is like a tiny orchestra tuning up before a great concert performance. He cannot play the music yet, but he can at least test out his instruments. His utterances may occasionally sound like true words, but as yet they have no real meaning. The next phase-and the thrill of being able to communicate with his parents-is almost upon him, but not quite. When this stage does finally arrive, it soon sweeps the joys of babbling into the past and replaces them with the more serious business of starting to learn a functional vocabulary.
Tone of voice
Vocal communication is more than a verbal exchange. It also involves tonality. A baby is sensitive to two contrasting types of ‘tone of voice’-smooth and harsh-and he also distinguishes between soft and loud. He dislikes harsh or very loud voices, even when the spoken words are identical to those uttered by smooth, soft voices. If an adult coos ‘ I love you ‘ to a baby, using a warm, gentle, loving tone, he enjoys the words. But if the same adult yells ‘ I love you ‘ using a harsh tone, the baby reacts unhappily. So, as the baby starts to acquire a vocabulary, it is important to remember that each word carries a tonal ‘modifier’ that can dramatically change its significance.
Once true words with specific meanings are uttered by a baby, it is fascinating to see which ones come first. They are nearly always one-or two-syllable words. Longer words defeat a baby in the earliest phase of speaking. He also ignores short words that relate to anything abstract or intangible. The very first ‘sentences’ usually consist of no more than a noun, and the nouns are always someone or something that is visible at the time. The most popular first words with a meaning are dada, mama, grandma, grandpa, nose, mouth , doggy, kitty, ball, eat and drink, along with the nicknames of brothers, sisters and other family members. As the number of such verbal labels starts to grow, simple verbs are added, creating two-words sentences. As before, the baby’s understanding of language is more advanced than his ability to speak it. If the mother asks ‘ Where has kitty gone? ‘ , the baby looks around trying to locate the kitten, even though he may not yet be able to say the four-words sentence himself. Baby utterances are always trying to catch up with baby understanding, and it is this race that helps to drive the infant forward to ever better communication skills.