Twila Tardif, a linguist at the University of Michigan, remembers the day she and her Mandarin-speaking babysitter watched as Tardif's 11-month-old daughter crawled over to a pen that had just fallen on the floor and pointed to it. “Pen!” Tardif told her daughter in Mandarin just as her sitter said, “Grab!” also in Mandarin. Then they looked at each other in puzzlement. Tardif realized that caregivers in different cultures might be influencing which words babies learn first.

Tardif's earlier work had shown that English-speaking children learn nouns first, almost exclusively, whereas Mandarin-speaking children's early spoken vocabulary has many more verbs than nouns. Babies' early comprehension follows the same pattern, but the difference is not as extreme.

In Tardif's most recent study (forthcoming), she followed 70 children learning English, Mandarin and Cantonese in Michigan, Beijing and Hong Kong from the time they were eight months old, before most of them spoke any words, to 30 months old, when most had a vocabulary of 500 to 700 words. By two and a half years most Mandarin-speaking children had reached a 50–50 balance of verbs to nouns. The English-speaking children had acquired about three times as many nouns as verbs.

“This pattern is probably an artifact of what babies hear in each language,” Tardif says. Mandarin is a verb-focused language; a speaker can omit the subject of a sentence in many situations. Because Mandarin verbs are very regular and have few tense markings, it is easy to pick out patterns compared with the free-for-all of English irregular verbs. In addition, English-speaking parents tend to use vague, one-size-fits-all verbs as they emphasize nouns: cars, trucks, buses, bicycles and scooters all simply “go.” Mandarin speakers do the opposite: they use catchall nouns such as “vehicle” but describe action—driving, riding, sitting on, pushing—with very specific verbs. “As a native English speaker, my first instinct when a baby points is to label,” Tardif says. Her babysitter, on the other hand, was a native Mandarin speaker, whose instinct was to name the action she thought the child was trying to achieve.

“Language is always a simplification of the world, and different languages simplify in different directions,” Tardif says. “The big question is, If you talk about the world in different ways, does that mean you see the world differently?”