My son has a pretty eclectic selection of vocabulary. Some words seem to have been picked up from my wife and I repeating them (such as "uh-oh" and "daddy"). Others seem to have been learned without us doing much to single them out ("balloon", "blue", and "duck" for example).

Other words we've been trying to teach him (see here) seem unaffected by repetition.

Some words he's learned seem completely random. For example, when looking at my iPhone booting up, he pointed to the Apple logo, and said "ball". I said "that's not a ball, that's an apple", and he immediately smiled and said "apple" quite clearly. Yet he doesn't seem to associate the word with the logo, or even my phone, as it seems to be a catch-all word to him (it is now his favorite words, but seems to be used for anything from "I'm bored" to "hello!" to "oooo! Look at the wind chime!").

I can't seem to figure out what the pattern (or patterns?) is to how he chooses his words. Is there one?

  • Your son's use of "apple" seems to be like my niece's use of "cica" (Hungarian for cat). :)
    – Martha
    Commented Nov 9, 2011 at 22:49
  • 1
    I found that the better it tastes, the quicker the word is learnt. "Brioche" was extremetly quikly understood and repeated. Wouldn't do a TED talk about it... Commented Aug 28, 2014 at 14:10

4 Answers 4


This is an amazing TED Talk on how language is acquired. The researcher recorded about 10 hours/day of audio and video (about 200TB) from the moment his son came home to age 3, focusing on the first 2 years. He (and his colleagues) mapped all of the words his son heard during that time and then chronologically mapped the audio and visual for each of the 503 words he learned before age 2.

Then they asked the question why did he learn the words that he learned. They graphed the complexity of the caregiver utterances based on the length of utterances. When he learned a word, they traced back what lead to the child saying that word.

Why were some words born before others? (about min 6:00 in the video) In the audio context, they found that the 3 caregivers in the house changed the complexity of their language to make it as simple as possible and then it got more complex after the child could make the word. This happened for every word that he learned. So, these seems to mean that children learn the words that the caregivers support.

In the visual context, they graphed where the child was in the house every time he heard the word (social hot spots). Does the structure of where words are heard affect when they are learned? (about min 9:00)? There as a change in the "wordscape" (where the child heard the word) which gave it context. Therefore, children learn the words in the context of where they hear them.

Be sure to watch the very end where his son takes his first steps.

BTW: There is more to this presentation. They took this another step further and looked at language in media. By graphing what people are saying and the context they are saying them, they can measure how engaged people are in the things that are happening (linking mass media with social media).


I love this stage of development because your child is starting to show you his interests. As parents, we often think we "know" which words are important for our kids to know, but for the first of many times he is showing you that he is an individual. Most importantly flood him with language, talk about everything! You will see more and more what he likes, wants, and needs to talk about. Enjoy following your child's lead as he determines what you will be discussing over the next few years!

Your child is choosing his words based on his interests. This is very typical and giving him the exposure to words will help to build his vocabulary. There are some patterns based on oral motor skills and what he can physically say, but also children develop their own pattern based on their own likes, wants and needs.

  • -1 for not answering the actual question, sorry. I'll be happy to remove the downvote when you edit your anwer :-) Commented Nov 11, 2011 at 18:36
  • I hope the edit helps to clarify what I meant.
    – bonita
    Commented Nov 11, 2011 at 18:41
  • Upvoted instead! Commented Nov 11, 2011 at 21:46

I think you'd have to be a brain-scanning linguist doctor to know that, and I suspect even those people are baffled at the absolute frontiers of language learning.

Which words?
Obviously the words they start with are somewhere in the general vocabulary that is used in their presence. But unlike his parents, he doesn't have any value system to tell him that "mommy" is more useful, and indeed more appreciated, to know very early. Without a value system, they just pick up whatever attaches best in their brains at the time, for whatever reason. It might be that the sound of the word is pleasing, or the "feel" or "oral shape" of the word is intriguing.


It's quite common for children to first overgeneralize their words, then make them more specific as they mature. For example, "ball" might mean "anything round" or "a toy." One of my kids called every man "daddy" for a while. For a lot of kids, "daddy" or "momma" simply refers to anyone who takes care of them rather than a specific individual. My daughter uses the word "pretty" to describe everything from clothing to hair accessories.

They do a lot of word reuse if it seems close enough. Our daughter knows the word "brush" and calls our cat Buffy "brushy." Our son calls "macaroni and cheese" "mac and only cheese." The distinctions and subtleties of language take longer to develop.

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