How do children’s linguistic and socio-cognitive skills interact with language input in learning modal and mental state terms?

Both modals (IMUST be in the red box) and mental terms (THINK it is in the red box) can be used to express how certain a speaker is about a given proposition. In addition, modals can be used to express necessity, obligation and permission (you MUST go to bed now). And mental terms can also refer to the speaker’s own or somebody else’s belief or knowledge state (he THINKS that Rome is the capital of Spain). It has been argued that (1) the different meanings and functions of modals and mental terms are related and lie on a continuum, and (2) that children’s use of modals and mental terms interacts with their developing Theory of Mind. However, the temporal and causal relationships between the different functions of modals and mental terms and between children’s linguistic and their socio-cognitive development is less clear.

Contradictory findings about the developmental relationship between modals, mental terms, and Theory of Mind could be explained by the fact that (1) researchers used different tasks to test children’s comprehension of modals and mental terms and/or that (2) researchers ignored the links between the different functions of modals and mental terms and subtle differences in syntactic forms. For example, children might be more likely to interpret mental terms as referring to knowledge states and beliefs when they are used together with third person subjects (HE THINKS Rome is the capital of Spain) rather than first person subjects (I THINK Rome is the capital of Spain).

Using corpus analyses, hidden-object tasks and classic false-belief tasks, the studies in this project will provide a systematic investigation of modal and mental term acquisition, enabling us to understand the order of acquisition of different form-function mappings, and how this interacts with the distributional properties of the language and children’s developing linguistic skills and Theory of Mind.

Project Team: Silke Brandt (Lead), Elena Lieven, Anna Theakston and Ditte Boeg Thomsen 

Start date: March 2017

Duration: 2.5 years

(Work Package 8)