The First Words Little Children Say

August 31, 2008 by Jamie Patterson  
Published in Motherhood

Differences between the East and the West.

The very first words small children in China learn are about people. Small children from the United States often chat about things, such as ‘bottle’, ‘ball’ or ‘banana’. Among the first ten words Chinese children know are also more verbs, such as ’save’, ’seize’ and ‘embrace’, compared to American children.

This is the outcome from research into the first ten words of small children in Beijing, Hong Kong and the U.S. The research was done by a team of Chinese, Irish and American language scientists led by Twila Tardif of the University of Michigan and published in the August edition of the journal Developmental Psychology.

For this study the parents of nearly one thousand children between 8 and 16 months were inquired about the first ten words their children learned. In its size, it is a unique investigation into the vocabulary of children.

In the first ‘conversation subjects’ of children there seem to exist clear cultural differences between Chinese and American children. The focus on ‘people’ or on ‘things’ is a difference between East and West which is also found in the language of older Chinese- and English-speaking children. It reflects the language used by Chinese and American parents when they talk with their children. In China, there is a detailed corpus of terms for family relationships and it is considered very important that young children use these terms correctly.

In the vocabulary of a small child from Beijing that knows ten words, there is only a chance of about 40 percent that one of these words is an object. With American children things are among the first words that they know. One third of the American children mentions a thing if they know only three words. In the United States the chance that an object is among the first ten words is over 80 percent. While no less than three quarters of all first ten words of the children in Beijing refer to people (usually family).

Further, in the United States less than a third of the first words relates to humans. In the twenty most common words children in the United States know, there are even more words describing animals than people. American children also imitate sound effects (like ‘vroom’ or ‘bang’).

Daddy, mummy and ‘arf arf’ are common first words in both China and the U.S. In both countries these words rank highest in the top-20 first words that children are saying.
American children further say words like: hello, bye, baabaa, grrr, bottle, dog, no, kitty, baby, duck, cat, ouch, banana, ball, yumyum and vroom and the Teletubbies-like uhoh!
Chinese children know more words for family members for which the English language has no separate words, like ‘older sister’, ‘older brother’, ‘maternal grandmother’, ‘paternal grandmother’ and ‘maternal aunt’.

For parents with toddlers who want to improve their communication skills with their child I recommend this website, It is written by an expert in NLP and Ericksonian patterns who adapted his knowledge to the task of parenting.

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