The Role of Language in Theory-of-Mind Development: What Deaf Children Tell Us

Peter A. de Villiers

in Why Language Matters for Theory of Mind

Published in print April 2005 | ISBN: 9780195159912
Published online March 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780199847150 | DOI:
The Role of Language in Theory-of-Mind Development: What Deaf Children Tell Us

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This chapter argues that deaf children provide a strong test for the causal role of language, because many of them have significantly delayed language acquisition but age-appropriate non-verbal intelligence and sociability. It compares the language and theory-of-mind abilities of two groups of deaf children: deaf children of hearing parents, whose language acquisition is delayed, and deaf children of deaf parents, whose language acquisition is not delayed. Across two studies, the chapter finds that deaf children who acquire fluent sign language early are significantly better at reasoning about mental states than language-delayed deaf children. Indeed, the theory-of-mind development of deaf children with deaf parents is comparable to that of their typically developing hearing peers. The chapter notes that both general verbal ability (vocabulary) and specific syntactic features of language (false complement structures) are independently predictive of false-belief reasoning in deaf children. Thus, this chapter demonstrates why language matters for theory of mind and the theory that mastery of the syntax of complementation is what provides the representational mechanism for reasoning about false beliefs.

Keywords: deaf children; language; language acquisition; sign language; reasoning; mental states; verbal ability; false beliefs; syntax; complementation

Chapter.  13650 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Cognitive Psychology

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