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Sometime between 15 and 24 months, many children experience a ‘word spurt’. This article explains research into how and why children start learning words so quickly around this age.

 

For example ...

If you’ve spent much time around a baby, you’ve probably had conversations like this:

  • ‘Look, Briana: a balloon! A big red balloon, floating in the air. Can you say balloon?’
  • ‘Baaboo!’
  • ‘Yes, balloon! Isn’t it a pretty balloon? Do you like the balloon?’
  • ‘Baallooo ... Baallooo ...’

During the first year of life, conversations with Briana usually follow a pattern. Mum and dad point to different objects and say ‘flower’, ‘cat’ or ‘balloon’. Briana looks and makes a cooing noise or babbles in a way that begins to sound like words. Then, around the time she turns one, it finally happens. Briana says her first real word. And for the next six months or so, Briana slowly builds her vocabulary as she practises saying words over and over again.

Sometime around 18 months, her parents notice an amazing change. Briana not only looks at the objects being pointed out to her, but she also starts naming them after hearing them only once or twice. ‘Book’, ‘dog’, ‘truck’, ‘keys’, she says. She even tries out an entirely new phrase. ‘What’s that?’ she asks, pointing at a helicopter. ‘What’s that?’ she demands, waving towards a tree.

Suddenly, it seems like the questions never stop coming. More than that, Briana remembers the answers. What used to take weeks of patient repetition now seems to take only one quick reply. It’s a ball, a cat, or a biscuit and she doesn’t need to be told twice.

A rush of words

Sometime between the ages of 15-24 months, many children experience what researchers call a ‘word spurt’:

  • Around 18 months, many children can say about 50 words. At this age, most children also begin using new words after hearing them only once.
  • Whether children learn words in a rush or more slowly, by the time they reach their second birthday, they’re typically using between 250-350 words.
  • Only six months later, the word total nearly doubles to about 600 words.

Researchers have noted that the words learned during a spurt are often names of objects, though this is not always true, especially in other cultures and languages. But whether the words are names or not, researchers are learning why they suddenly start coming fast when children are about 18 months old.

Pass the ‘lep’

Children use special strategies to learn language. For example, one experiment tested the ability of 16-20-month-olds to learn new words after hearing them just once. This is something researchers call ‘fast mapping’:

  1. The researchers showed children a group of five objects. Four of the objects were familiar to each child – a ball, a car, some keys and a dog, for example. The fifth object was new – a garlic press or other kitchen tool.
  2. The researcher then asked the child for one of the familiar items. For instance, the researcher said, ‘May I have the ball?’
  3. Once the child pointed to or grabbed the ball, the researcher asked another question, ‘May I have the lep?’ Children who could ‘fast map’ knew that the new word ‘lep’ must refer to the ‘new’ object in the collection, the garlic press.

At some point, children learn that ‘new’ words refer to ‘new’ objects, even when nobody points them out for them.

The researchers found that the children who could learn words this way had bigger vocabularies than those who couldn’t. This meant that these children had probably gone through a word spurt. A follow-up study of the children who originally could not learn words this way showed that once their vocabularies had grown, they too could learn by fast mapping.

The results suggest that fast mapping and the word spurt are closely related to one another.

Gaining insight

So how do children develop the ability to learn a word after hearing it only once?

Some researchers think that children gain new insights into words and language when they are around 18 months old. Most believe that children come to two realisations: words are names for objects and every object has a name. Scientists call this new understanding the ‘naming insight’.

In addition, some scientists think that when young children realise that all objects have names, they also begin sorting objects that are similar into categories. In one experiment, children were shown a pile of eight objects, with four objects of one type (like small plastic boxes) and four objects of another type (four balls). Then the researchers watched what these same children did from ages 15 months to about 20 months.

At around 16 months, many of the children would point to all the balls or all the boxes, and some would put all items of one type together. But by 17-18 months, the children would make two separate piles, one with the balls and one with the boxes (this experiment also used different types of items such as dolls and cars).

When the children were younger, they seemed to recognise the differences between the objects. Only when they were older did they actively sort the objects into separate categories. This active sorting was strongly related to the children’s word spurt.

Helpful parenting tips

  • Whether your child experiences a word spurt is probably not something you can control. Many children show these spurts, but some children don’t, and they still learn to speak normally. 
  • Research shows that parents and caregivers can play an important role in a child’s word learning. At least two studies have found that parents who talk often to their children and use a rich vocabulary to name and describe things help their children develop a larger vocabulary.

With this in mind, try the following:

  • Talk to your child often. Point out cats, balls and apples and so on. Talk about what you’re doing throughout the day. Follow your child’s lead and describe the things your child points to. Even if children don’t answer right away, they’re still listening and learning. 
  • As children learn new words, they might not get them quite right at first. Don’t feel like you need to correct them straight away. Help them by repeating the word after they say it, so that they can hear it again.
  • Help build a child’s vocabulary by adding details to the objects and events of the day. For example, if the child says ‘ball’, you could add, ‘Yes, that’s right, it’s a ball. It’s a red ball that bounces’. Don’t be afraid to use a rich vocabulary when you talk about things. 
  • Tired of talking? Try reading. While exposing your baby to language outside your own day-to-day vocabulary doesn't guarantee your child will learn new words, it might help. And it can be a fun way to be close to your child.
  • Remember that children recognise and understand many more words than they can say.
  • Don’t be afraid to use ‘parentese’ – that singsong, higher-pitched way of talking to young children.
  • Learning language is an amazing achievement. Celebrate the new words children learn!
  • Remember that children vary when it comes to the growth of their vocabularies, so it’s unwise to expect your child to be saying certain things by a particular age. Before long, your child will be putting words and sentences together, giving you new ways to share in your child’s thoughts, feelings and dreams.

When to be concerned

Sometimes, delays in communication skills can be signs of more serious developmental disorders or delay, including language delay, hearing impairment, developmental delay, intellectual disability and autism.

If your child is not saying one or more words by 12 months, or using two-word phrases by 24 months, speak with your healthcare professional. If this professional does not have concerns about your child, but you continue to do so, seek another opinion.
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    Gopnik, A., & Meltzoff, A. N. (1987). The development of categorization in the second year and its relation to other cognitive and linguistic developments. Child Development, 58, 1523-1531.

    Gopnik, A., & Meltzoff, A. N. (1998). Words, thoughts, and theories. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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    Huttenlocher, J., Haight, W., Bryk, A., Seltzer, M., & Lyons, T. (1991). Early vocabulary growth: relation to language input and gender. Developmental Psychology, 27, 236-248.

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