What counts as a word?

One of the most common questions I get asked by parents is “how many words should my child be saying?” As a parent, you are so eager for your little one to finally start talking. You spend so much time talking to your child and you just can’t wait for when they will start talking to you! First words are such an important part of your little one’s journey but what exactly counts as a word?

Before your little one uses a word, they must first have the understanding of the word and must use that word to represent a concept. For example, if every time your child wants milk they say “mimi”, then “mimi” can be considered a word. If your child says “moo” every time they see a cow, then “moo” also counts as a word.

Additionally, something very important to keep in mind is that when children are first learning to talk, they will definitely make mistakes. It is not expected for your child to say certain sounds and word perfectly clear. In fact, between the ages of 1-2, your child is understood about 50% of the time by familiar listeners and by the time they are 3-4, they are understood about 75% of the time. By the time your kiddo is 5, their speech should be understood by others, across contexts, 90-100% of the time. So, when children are first learning to talk, it is not expected for their speech to sound just like ours.

So, now that we have a bit of information on how much of your child’s speech you should understand, let’s now discuss what counts as a word:

1. Animal Sounds: I always love to start with animal sounds because they are fun and functional! “Moo,” “quack,” “woof,” “neigh” are all considered words. Animal noises (like snorting) are not considered words. In order for an animal sound to be considered a word, it has to include a consonant and vowel (i.e. moo).

2. Sound Effects: “beep-beep”, “vroom,” “woosh”- when your kiddo makes speech sounds when playing, these all count as a word!

3. Word Approximation: remember when I mentioned your little one’s speech does not need to sound exactly like ours, this is where word approximations come in. For example, a 2-year old is not expected to say the word “water” perfectly, so they may say “wawa” or “watuh” or “ba” for “ball”, this is considered a word approximately and definitely counts as a word.

4. Exclamatory Words: These words are easy and fun for kiddo’s to imitate. Some examples are “yay,” “uh-oh,” and “wee”

5. Sign Language: if your child uses signs for words-these all are considered words

BONUS TIP: If your child is learning two languages at once and has 5 words in English and 5 words in another language, guess what? That means your kiddo has TEN words total!

So to recap: if your child is using words CONSISTENTLY, INDEPENDENTLY, and INTENTIONALLY, then it counts as a word! Now that you know what counts as a word, are you finding that your little one has more words than you thought?

Now that you know what counts as a word, let’s talk about what you can do to encourage your little one’s first words!

1. MODEL: Modeling language is one of the most critical parts of early language development. The best part is, it requires NO prep and NO plan, you can do it anywhere, anytime! Model language by narrating what you are doing and what your kiddo is doing. For example, if your little one puts his arms up and says “uh” for you to pick him up, model “UP” and exaggerate the word. Vowels are often easier to imitate and early developing consonants like /p/, /b/ and /m/ are typically the first to emerge.

2. KEEP IT SIMPLE:  Keep your own language simple. Right now, it is important for your kiddo to pick up on key words like nouns and verbs, articles like “the,” “is” and “a” will come later. If your child is using no words, you can model 1 word. If your child is using 1-word, you can expand by modeling 2-words. Word counts will grow in time.

3. FOLLOW THEIR LEAD: Following your little one’s lead not only empowers them but it helps make the language functional and meaningful. For example, if your little one loves faucets and water, go with it! You can model words like ON, OFF, WATER, HOT, COLD, SPLASH, GO, STOP, DOWN, etc… Communication requires motivation and what better way to motivate your kiddo than by using things they enjoy! The more we follow our kiddo’s lead, the more likely they are to stay engaged and interact with us!

It is never too early to work on your little one’s communication and if ever, you have any questions along the way, seek out the support of a speech language pathologist to help guide your little one’s early speech and language development.