Words do more than communicate thoughts and facts. They allow us to organize and categorize those thoughts and facts – just as numbering systems allow us to do arithmetic after we’ve run out of fingers and toes to count on, or file names let us access previous work on a particular topic.
Children weeks old begin to bubble and coo, then move to squeals and squeaks, then repetitive tongue and lip movements, all in a fairly predictable sequence. As children age, they spend a fair amount of time experimenting and playing with sounds.
They play with giggles, cooing, wailing, grunting, moaning, bubble blowing on their way to their first word, just as they play with their feet or body parts on their way to sitting up, crawling, and walking. The pleasure gained in the mastery of sounds helps drive development forward. Be honest. You know those sounds are fun to make because you mimic them just to see that little face light up.
While infants begin uttering sounds for the sheer delight of doing so, they won’t attach meaning to those sounds until around 12 months. Once this happens, children discover the power of words to cause action – saying “Mama” is likely to bring Mom to the scene. Children also discover that words can call forth mental images of the people or things the words mean – saying or thinking “Mama” will bring up a mental picture of Mom. Such images can be very comforting to a child when Mom isn’t physically present, such as at bedtime. Most parents are familiar with children’s nighttime chants, a mix of words, syllables that call up images of the child’s world that are temporarily out of sight when the lights go out. While the uttered name may not magically or instantly produce Mom, the mental image or picture attached to the name provides important comfort until she actually appears.