When babies learn to speak, they’re actually learning a foreign language. There is often a great interest in what the first word will be. So what is the first word a baby surrounded by English might learn? Some extremely common word, we could assume, like “TV” or “beer”.
Yet I’ve never heard of parents cooing over a baby, “Awww, she said beer. Go get her one.” It’s common to claim that a baby’s first word is “mama” or something like it, and if you lean over the crib for hours mouthing “mama mama mama” like a car that won’t start, then maybe that will be the word.
Apparently, human beings think the first sounds a baby makes ought to be about the mother (of course, who is there when it happens to report that first word?). There are good reasons why the first word might actually be “mama”. Here is a version of “mama” in a few other languages: Arabic—mama, Lithuanian—mama, Bengali—maa, Korean—eomma, Tibetan—amma.
With your lips together, that is to say, doing nothing at all really with your mouth, vibrate your vocal chords (hum). What sound do you have? Some kind of “m” noise. Now while you make that noise, open your mouth. Chances are you just made the sound “ma”. It’s almost an automatic sound, with no effort to do it.
But let’s pause to consider what it means to “know” a word. Consider the Russian word “ptitsa”, which means bird. Now that you see the word and have the meaning, do you “know” it? Perhaps an hour from now you won’t remember it, or even if you do, you may not be sure how it’s pronounced. As a different example, take an English word, “incorrigible”. For some people, this is a word they might know if they see it or hear it, but they would never think to use it in a sentence. When it comes to language, there are different kinds of knowing, and understanding a word when we hear it is possible without being able to think of it or pronounce it.
If we define “knowing” a word as any kind of conscious connection between sound and meaning, maybe a baby’s first word is “hungry” or “Janie” (if she happens to be named Janie). But of course the little darlings can’t pronounce complicated words like that with their baby mouths. I’ve forgotten what my own first word was (I’m pretty sure it might have been “incorrigible”), but I’ve thought a lot about this idea.
I think the baby lives for months in a world filled with meaningless noises, as when the adults are talking on Charlie Brown cartoons. Wah wah wah wah. Then suddenly, knowledge like the Holy Spirit comes down, and the realization hits that some of those noises have meaning. Wah wah hungry wah wah. Food is coming!
It’s possible that a baby’s first word comes as a kind of stunning epiphany, a moment that suddenly rushes the baby ahead toward full humanity. Does this amazing moment flip a switch? Does a part of the brain that was quiet until that moment go into overdrive, does the baby become more alert, begin paying closer attention to sounds? Like most things, this process probably varies from person to person. From that first amazing word, the incredible miracle of language enters our lives.
It’s probably just as well that babies don’t come into the world with language, or else they might all be born looking around shouting, “Holy shit! What is all this?” Or I don’t know, maybe not, maybe they’d say, “Wow, like a cool giant kaleidoscope!” Of course if they had language and could also see the future, when they were born they’d be saying, “Oh no, this is gonna be a problem.”