After ‘mama,’ kids’ first words usually include ‘this’ and ‘that’

ITHACA, N.Y. — A child’s first words are a major milestone, but not every parent should expect to hear “mommy” or “daddy” right away. New research finds kids are likely to learn a little bit of “this” and “that” when speaking for the first time. Researchers from Cornell University found these words are just as common for young children to say early on as the iconic “mama.”

Words that help direct caregivers’ attention are usually among the first children begin to use and understand frequently, according to the study. This project is the largest ever, according to sample size, of early vocabulary development in an Indigenous language.

Easy words to learn all around the world

Moreover, according to Amalia Skilton, a linguistics scholar and Klarman Fellow in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S), the utterance of words like “this” and “that” by very young children has been documented across a number of widely spoken languages including English, Spanish, and Mandarin. Notably, all three of those languages have a rather simple system for demonstratives.

Skilton actually observed similar linguistic patterns among 45 Ticuna speakers in Peru. This indicates, study authors say, that children’s natural drive to share attention produces similar effects on language learning. More specifically, on the first words. This appears to hold true even among languages very different from English or Spanish spoken in very different social settings.

“Children learn demonstratives that call others’ attention to objects – such as ‘this/that’ and ‘here/there’ – at extremely young ages, when they know very few other words,” Skilton says in a university release. “‘This’ and ‘here’ show up just as early as stereotypical first words like ‘mama.’”

This and that are the stars of language

Demonstratives play a “starring role” in childhood language development, Skilton explains. Words like this and that are a big part of so-called joint attention, which is what allows people to label objects with names and coordinate our actions and cooperate with others.

“Sharing attention is the infrastructure for the rest of language and social interaction,” Skilton says.

English features only two primary demonstratives (this, that), but other languages have up to a dozen. Ticuna, a language spoken by about 69,000 Indigenous people living along the Amazon/Solimões River in Peru, Colombia, and Brazil, features six demonstratives. Researchers analyzed four of those demonstratives because of their more frequent usage.

For over a year, Skilton lived in Cushillococha, Peru, a community of only 5,000 that primarily relies on subsistence farming. During that period, she recorded very young children (ages one to four) while they played and interacted with their caregivers. Across nearly 15 hours of video samples, Skilton tracked Ticuna language development closely.

Even though they had a very limited vocabulary, 12 of the 14 one-year-olds tracked by Skilton uttered “this/that” or “here/there.” This observation demonstrated the universal drive to share attention, the study states. Moreover, Skilton says this work effectively confirms that caregivers and parents alike can expect their kids to begin using such words at around the 12 to 18-month mark “no matter what language they speak.”

Kids face early language obstacles

The type of demonstratives young kids use suggests that while they are anxious to share attention, they also have some trouble understanding others’ perspectives. For example, Ticuna children learned “egocentric” demonstratives, which would be equivalent to “this/here near me” in English, roughly two years earlier than “interactive” demonstratives such as “that/there near you.” Furthermore, Ticuna children used egocentric words more often than even adults, with the words accounting for as much as 15 percent of all their spoken words.

Previous studies show young children have difficulties understanding what others believe or know. This work adds the discovery that kids also struggle with understanding how others view objects in space. However, that particular ability is more a matter of cognitive development, not the learning of any particular language, Skilton notes.

So, Skilton says parents and other caregivers shouldn’t be concerned if their young child (under the age of three) uses interactive words incorrectly.

“While adults think of these words as simple,” Skilton concludes, “their meanings are fairly challenging for children to understand at young ages and having trouble with them is a typical part of child development.”

The study is published in the Journal of Child Language.

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