We all know that kids are pretty amazing. I mean, they might be snotty balls of tears and screaming, but they literally have to learn EVERYTHING and they actually succeed! Arguably, one of the most important skills a child must learn is language. It is one of the most complicated and poorly-understood elements of our modern existence. The vast majority of us use it every single day, particularly now that our lives have transferred online.
Developmental psychologist have been studying language development for many many years, and have come up with some basic stages which relate to most people. Generally, most psychologists agree that language begins with babbling, followed by holophrases (single words which indicate full sentences, e.g. “car” to mean “look at that shiny car!”), after which comes two-word sentences, then telegraphic sentences (short sentences without conjunctives or articles), and finally adult-like speech. This is a very simple breakdown of an extremely complex area, but that’s the basic gist.
In order to understand language, scientists study huge numbers of children on multiple occasions across their development. The data gained from these studies is never a full-picture, however, because children cannot be studied continuously as they grow.
Thankfully, one parent, “just a video editor who, for some reason, likes spreadsheets” has done what scientists cannot, and has been documenting every single word his child has uttered since birth. Although it sounds like a lot of work, he claims he’s only had to record “At most …5 words in a day, so it’s not a ton of work. It just became part of my evening routine to remember which new words I heard today.”
Known on Tumblr as JonJivan, he originally posted 3 graphs showing the exponential learning curve he identified in his son’s speaking ability from 16 months old.
As you can see, JonJivan’s son first uttered a tangible word just before he was 8 months old, but it wasn’t until 16 months that he really got going. Scientists believe that the babbling stage is vital for language development. It is when children begin learning how to shape their mouths to form sounds. They have also been noted to mimic the rhythms and tones of adult speech, suggesting they are developing an understanding of sentence and intonation. Unfortunately, that horrible ‘baby talk’ adults revert to around babies is really helpful for encouraging babbling. It’s called ‘Motherese’ and is particularly popular in America. Correlational studies between the UK and America suggest that American children have greater vocabularies in later childhood compared to British children due to an increased amount of motherese during infancy.
JonJivan has helpfully provided us with a close-up from 16 to 20 months, so we can really get a good look at some of the data:
And for the data nerds out there, he also included a semi-log scale:
JonJivan also posted the graphs on Reddit, and has provided a little more explanation to some of the data.
Staring at the very beginning with “uh-oh”:
“This is followed by months of throwing things from the highchair to the floor.”
Although there are many expected words, e.g. “no”, “bye”, “me”, “go”, there is one entry which is somewhat concerning…”stab”. I’m not sure that JonJivan’s response to this is all that comforting:
“I was teaching him how to stab food with his fork. We haven’t moved on to people, yet.”
Another word which might be leaping out at you is Yahtzee, which thankfully has a more PG explanation:
“Haha. We have a kid’s version of Yahtzee with large dice and Disney characters. We’d “play” the game with him – but that really just consisted of putting all the dice in the cup, shaking it, dumping on the floor and yelling “yahtzee!” regardless of what came up.He thought it was hilarious and would play by himself, yelling “yahtzee” every time he dumped the cup of dice.”
There was also a notable lack of the word “yes”, but “no” was one of the first words to be spoken:
“Yeah, I was not surprised that “no” came first, but very surprised that “yes” didn’t end up being in the first 100! I keep explaining to him that the ability to answer a binary question is a highly useful human skill, but he doesn’t seem to get it for some reason. 1 year olds…”
He also attempted to teach his child sign language, but that was somewhat less successful:
“We tried exposing him to sign language very early (starting before 6 mo). Despite, (what I thought was) quite a bit of diligence, he really only picked up on “milk” and “eat.” He started using “more” but not until a few weeks before saying the actual word. Then he stopped using the sign. So either we suck at it, or signing wasn’t his thing!”
JonJivan credits reading as a source of vocabulary for his son:
“We do read him a lot of books though, and that is certainly where he’s picked up quite a few of these words (e.g.: “mush” could have only come from the book Goodnight Moon). Reading 3-4 books a night has been part of our bedtime routine for a few months now.”
I’m pleased to announce that JonJivan did attempt to approach this project in a scientific way, so YAY for accurate data!
“All words recorded were said in context (not simply a parroting of sounds) and had to be witnessed by both myself and my wife for confirmation. I did not go by perfect pronunciation, but it had to be about 75% there. There were many words I knew he was saying, but another person would likely not understand, even in context. For example, last night he was saying something that sounded like “mayma” but he meant “banana.” I would not count a word like this. But “eh-bo” for “elbow” was close enough, so it counted. It’s certainly a bit subjective, but there are many words people don’t pronounce 100% correctly as adults ;)”
He also made attempts to delve deeper into the data. For instance:
“I counted syllables for the entire list but didn’t come to any interesting conclusion. About 90% are one syllable words with several two syllable words randomly scattered throughout. No three or higher yet, so syllable counting will probably have a more interesting trend later on.”
Unfortunately there are limits to what one man can investigate. Although he’d like to look at word combinations at different ages, language itself is too complex.
“…it would be exhausting once the child’s language skills really took off. Imagine transcribing everything *you *say in a day! His most successful sentences so far are: “Papa toot on” (Grandpa, take me down to see the trains) and “Daddy ball up” (Dad, let’s throw the ball up and down the stairs).”
The data was able to be tracked in real-time as he used Google Sheets, so could pull up the spreadsheet on his phone as soon as a new word was heard. Due to the success of this particular experiment, you’ll be delighted to hear that he’s not planning on stopping any time soon!
“Wait until I start tracking Son #2 (coming in May) on the same chart as Son #1. Pit your children against each other!…And as long as it’s not too embarrassing for one child, I’ll post it back here again, haha.”
You can check out the entire thread at this link.
JonJivan – keep up the good work, it is fascinating!
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