Theory of Mind and children’s understanding and use of mental-state language

Linguistics and Phonetics invited speaker series

When children start to talk about the mind, they need to learn both the semantics of mental verbs, such as know and think, and the syntax of complement clauses in which these mental verbs are typically used, such as she knows that it has stopped raining. Corpus and experimental data also indicate that there is an interaction between the semantics and syntax of mental verbs (e.g., Brandt, Buttelmann, Lieven, Tomasello; 2016; Diessel & Tomasello, 2001). I will present a number of studies that suggest that children find it easier to interpret the meaning of mental verbs in a third-person context (e.g., HE knows that the sticker is in the blue box) than in a first-person context (e.g. I know that the sticker is in the blue box) and that the third-person forms are more closely linked to children’s Theory of Mind Development than the first-person forms. We have found this pattern in a variety of languages, including English, German, and Mandarin. In addition, I will present and discuss research in progress, where we look at children’s use of mental-state language and their understanding of belief and common ground in peer interaction and in a structured narrative task.