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How many words is your child using?

This is a common question that is asked by pediatricians, speech-language pathologists, mother-in-laws ( just kidding, but maybe)...

Let’s break down what actually counts as a word.

Disclaimer: Vocabulary is very important, but there are many parts of language that are just as important. If your child is communicating and able to get their wants and needs met, please do not stress about the amount of words your child is saying. This is just one way to figure out if your child needs speech and language therapy, but it is not the only thing!

For something to count as a word, it must have these three elements:

  1. Intentional - your child is using the word purposefully in order to communicate.

  2. Consistent - your child is using the same word regularly in different contexts.

  3. Independent - your child is using the word on their own and not imitating.

True words are the words that most people know to count. They are often common nouns like “cookie”, proper nouns like “Mommy”, verbs like “jump”, and social words like “hi”. True words must also sound ‘somewhat’ like a real adult version of the word and be used with intent/meaning.

Protowords are words that may not have meaning to a non-familiar person, however, familiar persons may understand the reference.

For example: "mimi" for ‘milk’ or “buh” for ‘book’

Word Approximations are words that use a part of the word, but not the whole word.

For example: “ba” for “bottle” or “uh” for “up”

Fun or Exclamatory Words are sounds that are used intentionally such as “uh oh”, “wheee”, “whoa”, “yay”, or “eww”

Sound Effects are words usually used during play, such as, “boom”, “beep-beep”, “vroom-vroom”, or “choo-choo!”

Animal Sounds like “oink”, “moo”, “woof”, “meow”, “neigh”, etc… all count as words.

Signs for ‘more’, ‘all done’, or ‘thank you’ are also examples of words.

Words in different languages count as words as well. If your child knows how to say hello in three languages, “hi”, “hola”, “bonjour”, then that would count as three words.

Here are some examples incorporating the three elements of being intentional, consistent and independent:

An 11-month-old saying “mama” while looking at mommy is likely a word. Since the child is looking at mommy, that shows that it is intentional, if your child uses mama often when with you, then that is consistent and then if they say “mama” on their own without imitating you, then it would count as a word.

A 14-month-old saying “fa” after a toy falls on the ground is likely a true word.

A 12-month-old saying “babababa” while playing with toys is likely not a true word for ‘bottle’ and would be considered babbling.

A 6-month-old saying dadadada while he is playing with his toys while daddy is at work is likely not a true word and would be considered babbling.


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