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Why is the first word babies say so crucial? It paves the way to building a vocabulary
Research by Florida State University shows early knowledge of certain words helps young kids "unlock their language skills." So how do they take a word like "mama" or "dada" and learn more from it? - photo by Payton Davis
Most people enjoy listening to a parent tell the story of their child's first words but the story behind how kids learn those words is intriguing too.

People magazine reported on the first words Chelsea Clinton's daughter, Charlotte, said. Charlotte first said "up," but many others followed.

"And then 'hi' and 'bye,' and 'dadda' did come before 'mamma,' but thankfully 'mamma' came before 'Elmo,'" People quoted Clinton saying. "Phew, I beat Elmo."

According to new research by Florida State University's psychology department, for kids like Charlotte, learning words like "mama" and "dada" paves the way for them to bolster their vocabularies with related words.

Knowing "mama" or "dada" might lead to "sister" or "brother," Medical Xpress reported. Similarly, kids who know "toy" could say "doll" or "game" soon. When confronted with new words, knowledge in regards to similar ones helps kids "talk up a storm."

"Children leverage their early word knowledge to help them unlock their language skills," Medical Xpress quoted FSU assistant psychology professor Arielle Borovsky saying. "Knowing a few related words helps children recognize links between new word meanings, and this could be a very useful strategy for helping children learn vocabulary early in life. This might be part of the explanation for why children begin to start 'talking up a storm' between the ages of 18-24 months."

The bottom line: Saying "mama" can go a long way, according to Medical Xpress.

Researchers studied 32 two-year-olds on how they built their vocabularies, Matt Hoffman wrote for Science World Report. The team used a computer program to show the toddlers items familiar to them to test the kids' knowledge on certain words, and then researchers interviewed toddlers' parents on their language use.

Finally, Borovsky and her team taught the children new words through images on the screen, using eye-tracking technology to see how the participants understood the new words, Hoffman reported.

"The study found that children recognized the new words more easily when they already knew related words," Hoffman wrote. "This suggested that by using a child's vocabulary, they could find out which words would be easier or more difficult to learn, based on their age, according to Borovsky."

If what words babies say guide them to learning others, their first-ever term uttered is "highly individualized," Elise Sole reported for Yahoo News.

According to Sole, babies experience "heightened activity in the portion of the brain that processes language" when hearing repetitious syllables of common first words.

But the reason a baby manages to say "dada" before "mama" like Charlotte or the other way around is still up for debate.

"Experts are mixed about whether or not saying 'mama' is easier than 'dada' for babies. Classic theories by the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson found that the sound of 'm' (for 'mama') is easier for babies to make because they tend to do so when their mouths are fastened to a bottle or breast," Sole wrote. "But according to Breyne Moskowitz, Ph.D., nasal sounds such as 'm' are actually more difficult."
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