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What counts as a true first word?

Learning words is a milestone in a child’s development. Before words develop for Analytic Language Learners, though, children frequently coo, babble, and produce gestures or signs to support their communication. Speech therapists or other providers may ask when a child’s first word was produced or how many words they are currently saying. So what exactly counts as a word? When a child says “dada” or “mama” for everything, are they saying “mom” and “dad”? Not quite, but this is a great first step! A true word is something that is produced independently, intentionally, and consistently. Let’s break those down briefly:

  • Independently: a child is producing a true word independently if they say it without prompting or encouragement from others. When an adult says, “It’s a ball, say ball, ball” that is providing a prompt and would not count as producing it independently. It’s great to model how to say a word and build the association between a word and its corresponding object, thought. But, over time, the goal is for a child to be able to produce “ball” without anyone telling them the word or encouraging them to say it. That will come with increased exposure and practice.

  • Intentionally: a child is producing a true word intentionally when it corresponds to what they are hoping to communicate in a moment. A child who says “mama” for everything is not yet intentionally calling for their mother, but rather still babbling. Once a child refers to only their mother as “mama” then there is intentionality behind the word and it is considered a true word.

  • Consistently: when children are developing words, they may produce a word in one instance and then not say it again. It could be that they’re imitating someone or something or they are babbling and playing with sounds, but not necessarily producing them as a true word.

There is also a range of words that are considered true words! Here are some examples of possible first words when they are produced independently, intentionally, and consistently: Animal sounds

  • For example, oink, moo, and nay are all true words

Sound effects

  • For example, beep beep, vroom, and boom are all true words


  • For example, wow, wee, and yay are all true words

Sign Language

  • For example, when children use ASL they are producing true words. Sign language does not hinder a child’s ability to learn spoken words, in fact, it is a great tool to support spoken language.


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