Baby’s First Words: A Language Summary At 16 Months

I remember asking my parents, when I was little, about my first word, and my siblings’ first words. As though there’s a single, definable, momentous occasion when a child first opens their mouth and says something. A clear border between talking and not talking. I must’ve realized at some point that this isn’t quite how it usually works — or at least, that definitely hasn’t been our experience with Lillian.

She started with the babbling and babytalk when she was a few months old, continuing it ever since — and slowly over that span of time, certain things started to sound more and more like comprehensible words. Since I haven’t mentioned much of this on the blog yet, and since Lillian passed the 16-month mark earlier this week, I thought it would be fun to do a little language summary. Here are some things she’s been saying so far:

  • Cat – Sometimes pronounced without much of a “T” sound at the end, but almost always said while pointing at our cat, or the neighbor’s cat, or another small furry animal. (When we were down in Florida over Christmas, Lillian seemed fairly insistent that her grandma’s bunnies were cats.)
  • Tickle – Pronounced “ticka-licka-licka-licka” while making tickling motions with her fingers.
  • E-I-E-I-O – From the song. It’s really cute — you can sing “Old MacDonald had a farm,” and she’ll say “E-I-E-I-O” (sometimes with and sometimes without the final O.) I’ve also heard reports from our daycare that she does this during other songs they sing too. Row, row, row your boat? E-I-E-I-O!
  • Mama and Dada – She seems to know who’s who, although she was calling me “Dada” and Joe “Mama” for a little while there. She also does things like point at herself and say, “Dada!” and I’ll say, “No, you’re Lily!” and she’ll laugh, and point at herself again, and say “Dada!” So, I’m pretty sure she’s just messing with us.
Random Instagram photo of Lillian in the snow.

Random Instagram photo of our little trickster in the snow.

There are other suspiciously word-sounding things that get mixed in with the endless stream of babytalk,  though it’s hard to tell if they’re actually words, or just this mama finding meaning in the verbal equivalent of Rorschach inkblots. But some other words I think I might’ve heard so far are: Good, Duck, Dog, Cookie, All Done, Light, Door, WindowButton, and Hat. Time will tell if they start to come up more often!

Finally, there are a handful of words that she doesn’t say, but clearly understands and reacts to when someone else says them:

  • No – She definitely understands this and will respond to it, though not necessarily in exactly the way we parents would like (i.e. unquestioningly on the first try). More likely she’ll pause whatever she’s doing, look at you, then repeat it 2-3 more times to test and see if it gets the same reaction. Baby version of the scientific method, I guess!
  • Gentle – This came about while trying to teach Lillian to pet Grendel without being too rough, hitting, or grabbing her fur. “You have to be gentle,” we’d say, and then show her how to gently pet the kitty. It actually seems to have worked — with the occasional exception — and Lillian seems to understand how to pet Grendel gently enough that our furry friend doesn’t even get flustered and scurry off. (I’ve also noticed that if Lillian starts getting too rough in that toddler way, I can say “No hitting, Lillian, you have to be gentle,” and then she’ll start trying to gently pet my hair.)
  • Shake – If you say this while she’s holding an object, she will try to shake it.
  • Wipe – If you say this after handing her a baby wipe or a kleenex, she will try to wipe down any available surface no matter how practical, including the table, the rug, the couch, or the floor. (Here’s hoping this love of cleaning things continues as she gets older!)

These are just a few examples that seem particularly obvious, though — I’ve heard that toddlers at this age understand a lot more than they can say, and a lot more than they may let on, so this is likely just scratching the surface.

All in all, it’s been such an incredible joy watching her language skills develop this far, and I can’t even say how much I’m looking forward to all the learning and talking and eventual two-way conversations that lie ahead.

To anyone reading who’s been down this road already, did your toddlers follow a similar pattern (lots of babytalk slowly becoming more word-y) when they first began talking? Any particularly interesting/cute/funny words that emerged in those early days?


  1. Aww!!!! I remember how exciting it was when my babies were first learning to talk. She’ll be talking up a storm the next time we see her. They do understand a lot more than they can express at first, but you will see a gradual increase in words she can say as time goes by. That’s how it seemed to work with mine anyway. I love how her sense of humor is developing! She is just so precious””

    • Thanks! It really is exciting, and I can’t wait to see how much she’s saying by the next time we’re down there! Thanks as always for taking the time to read and comment! :)

  2. Julie is right, babies do understand more than they can express. Adults are the same way when learning a foreign language. And the first words in babies’ native language coincides with a gradual reduction in their ability to discriminate the speech sounds in another language. Learning to communicate through language is said to be one of the highest level thinking skills. That said, there is nothing more awesome and precious than a little one learning to talk! Treasure these years!

    • That’s an interesting point about adults learning foreign languages, and definitely seems to match my own limited experience with taking Spanish in high school. Watching a little one learn to talk really is precious though, and I’m trying my best to soak it all in! Thanks for reading and commenting! :)

  3. BWAH-HAHAHA…THE ROSS STRIKES AGAIN! I have a feeling the love of cleaning things will most definitely NOT go away, but will insert itself more forcefully as Lily gets older. She has apparently inherited, dun, dun, DUN…THE ROSS GENE. Prepare yourself now…she’ll likely be obsessed with things matching and looking “even” as she gets older. :D On the plus side, she’s going to be a super-helper around the house!!!

    I love reading these blogs…I feel like we’re really getting to know Lily and her personality; every time I read a new post/see a new picture I’m like “Oh, I bet she gets that from Joe!” or “Wow, she looks JUST like Sarah when she makes that face!” It’s just amazing. She is truly a living legacy…I would love to find out what you think she gets specifically from your side of the family though; and in that way, we can get to know them better too!!! Because although I try to be good and keep up with everyone on Facebook, it’s hard. :(

    Oh, and P.S. I just get a ridiculous kick out of your terminology…”suspiciously word-sounding things” and “the verbal equivalent of Rorschach inkblots.” were my two favorites from this blog. You have such a way of conveying your personality through you words, I swear I actually “hear” you when I’m reading your blog. It’s fantastic!!! ^_^

    • Thanks Rachel, this comment really made my day! I asked Joe about the Ross gene and got an explanation about Grandmama Hart’s side of the family involving ladies who are short in stature and fierce in temper and serious about cleaning things. All I can say is that I hope this theory proves to be correct as Lillian gets older — it would be awesome to have a child who cleans their room own their own, haha :)

      The question of which traits come from who is a really interesting one, though I think I have a hard time deciding it myself — she reminds me of so many different people, and at the same time adding her own little personality on top. It might be a nifty thing to explore in a future blog post though!

      I love that you’re enjoying the blog updates, and it’s awesome to know that someone’s enjoying my weirdo terminology, haha :) Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

  4. I was thinking the same thing about the “Ross gene” (Bill’s maternal grandmother), and it’s not just the girls either, nor limited to the house. When she’s tall enough, add the hosepipe to the wipe, and she’ll make a rusty bike or nasty car shine like jewels! I think it’s something to do with the simple nature of the task and the obviousnous of the results (“this room is CLEAN” versus “this termpaper is DONE . . . or is it?”) that is so rewarding.

    As for the language skills, one way to reinforce new words (which you may already do) is to repeat, with a cheery face so it doesn’t feel like scolding, whatever word you think she’s trying, but with the full enunciation. So when she says “Cah”, depending on the context, you say “yes, CATTT” or “no, CARRRRR”. Emphasizing similar sounds when adding a new word helps, too, thus when she said “CAT” while pointing at my rabbits, I said “RAB-bits”. This is why even adults learn a new language faster and better from having to use it in the foreign country, preferably with a friend (or good instructor) already fluent in both languages, than from books or even tapes while still immersed in their own culture. Can you tell language is one of my passions? :D

    I agree with Rachel about this blog, too, and am thinking perhaps she and Joe could do something similar, or even suggest their other sibling try his hand at it (wink, wink, nudge, nudge)? Love you all, and can hardly wait to see you again!

    • I can definitely see the appeal of finishing a task that has a clear result like that. And the simplicity can be relaxing and therapeutic in a way — like sometimes I’ll feel the urge to do some extra cleaning after a stressful day or when I have a lot on my mind.

      Thanks for the tips and suggestions, repetition and enunciation definitely sound like the way to go. I’ve been making it a habit to repeat words and basically just narrate whatever we’re doing whenever I’m with Lillian, and she seems to be soaking it in like a sponge. It’s only been three days since I posted this and I’ve already started hearing a couple of new ones, so the next language installment might come sooner rather than later!

      I really do love writing this blog, and I’m glad you guys have been enjoying it! I also agree and second the suggestion about blogs for everybody ;) Love you back and looking forward to our next trip down there!

  5. A “p.s.” to my comment about learning a second language — it’s not that you can’t learn one, it’s that some of the sounds won’t come naturally. Like the rolling “r” in Spanish!

    • Very true! And I imagine that there are plenty of subtle pronunciation things for people learning English that we just sort of take for granted as well. :)

  6. I will never forget the time you cussed out your pediatrician in baby talk. Your dad was holding you on his lap while you got your checkup. I was sitting next to him holding your stuff. Dr. Kim had just finished giving you your shots and instead of crying, you launched into a tirade of baby talk. We had always told you that Dr. Kim was your good friend who kept you well, so you wouldn’t be afraid of a doctor or shots. This particular day, you weren’t buying it. You had heard somebody say, “Bullshit” and you would say, “Bee-et.” well, in this tirade to Dr. Kim, you went on and on and ended with “Bee-et” very emphatically. You weren’t happy with your dad and me, either, and Dr. Kim’s eyes kept getting bigger and bigger because he probably knew he was being cussed out, too. Your dad was laughing so hard he was crying. In the car, we translated the tirade to something along the lines of, “You take me to this guy who always wants my clothes off and he touches me with something shiny but incredibly cold and then he jabs me with sharp things. And you call him my good FRIEND? BULLSHIT!”

    Whenever your dad would would reminisce, he’d always say, “Remember that time Sarah went off on Dr. Kim?” We knew at an early age that you’d always stand up for yourself and speak your mind!

    • LOL! I’ve heard you guys tell this story before, and found it cute — I guess I put that mean old pediatrician in his place! Thanks for posting it Mom… and also for the reminder that little ones try to repeat whatever they hear, which means me and Joe should try to clean up our potty mouths ;)

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