early language

The First 50 Words- And Why They Matter

June 6, 2023

I’m Brooke
I'm a speech therapist with a mission to make speech therapy simple and accessible! 
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First Words

If you have been tracking your new talkers first words, every new word can feel like its own milestone

And it makes sense! Talking is hard work

Not only does your little one have to learn all of the foundational skills for talking like how to make different sounds, how to copy you, and build their comprehension of words, but they have to coordinate just the right muscles, at just the place, at just the right time to make the sounds come out the way they want

So no wondering each new word can feel like a process!

But how is it that average 4 year old has a vocabulary of 5,000 words? (Golinkoff & Hirsh-Pasek, 2000)

Something has to shift in the way their learning words, right?

What causes the “vocabulary explosion”

Somewhere around the time toddlers hit the 50 word mark, the whole way they learn language shifts.  Toddlers under go a rapid expansion in words, which speech therapist refer to as the vocabulary explosion or vocabulary spurt.

So what exactly is happening?

1)Toddlers discover that objects belong to categories: We can’t remember every little detail about everything we encounter in the world. That’s where categories come in. Once toddlers understand categories, they have mental boxes to put words into. These boxes serve as building blocks for language.  Around this time you may start to hear your toddler call all men “Daddy” or all animals a “dog.”  These are called generalizations and tend to show up more around specific categories such as letters, vehicles, and clothing.

2) Toddlers start to use social cues for word learning: As your toddler become more experienced at learning and using language, they are able to use cues to know when a word is meant for them.  For example, your toddler starts to understand that just by the way you say a word and the way your body is positioned towards something that it’s what you are talking about. This helps them map more meanings onto more words and expand their vocabularies.

3) Toddlers start to think beyond the here and now: Psychologist Jean Piaget realized that a number of mental leaps happen around 18 months.  One of them is that toddlers begin to think beyond the here and now.  They start to think about things that happened yesterday and things that are going to happen in the future. As your little one begins to think in this more complex way, they need a way to express these new thoughts and ideas. Language does just that.

Something else exciting happens around the time your toddler hits the 50 word mark.  We also hear little ones start combining words after they hit the 50 word mark, which is why using word combinations is a speech milestone we want to see by two years old. 

Knowing what’s happening with language development under the surface can give you new insight into all of the amazing things your little one is accomplishing!  If you have concerns about your little one reaching the 50 word milestone or are looking for ways to support your child’s speech and language development at home, check out my Big Little Talkers course here.

Looking for a way to keep track of your toddler’s first 50 words? Grab my free First 50 Words Guide here


Golinkoff, R. M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (1999). How Babies Talk: The Magic and Mystery of Language in the First Three Years of Life. http://ci.nii.ac.jp/ncid/BA50144899

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