It may not come as a surprise to many when I say that language is a crucial tool for children’s social interactions. But what might be surprising is that different languages might have different ways of supporting children’s social skills. Previous research suggested that children who spoke Turkish were more successful at taking others’ perspectives when compared to children speaking Chinese or English (Lucas et al., 2013). This may initially bring up the question “What is so special about Turkish children?”, but in fact the more accurate question might be “What is so special about the Turkish language?” In our latest study, we asked exactly this question.
Before getting into the details of the study, briefly defining some relevant terms that might be helpful. One of these terms is source monitoring. In a nutshell, source monitoring is our ability to trace the source of our information, such as accessing the information with our senses (e.g., seeing, hearing, etc.) or by inferring from the evidence available. For instance, I can see from my window that an ice cream van is parked on my street, I can hear the ice cream van’s chime and know that it’s on my street without seeing it, or I can see a child on my street having ice cream and infer that the ice cream van must have passed recently.
A second term that is related to this study is evidentiality. Evidentiality is highly related to source monitoring, and it is the linguistic declaration of one’s knowledge. For instance, when I say “I saw that the ice cream van was on my street”, I am using an evidentiality structure to communicate the source of my information. What is interesting about evidentiality is that different languages have different evidentiality structures. For instance, in Turkish, it is obligatory to use an evidential marker when talking about a past event (i.e., to highlight whether the communicator of the information has direct or indirect access to the information) whereas in English evidentiality use is optional (i.e., it is not grammatically incorrect to just say “The ice cream van was on my street” without providing evidence for this information). Research suggests that there can be differences in the cognitive abilities of children who grow up learning a language with grammatical evidentiality, like Turkish, or a language with optional evidentiality, like English (Aksu-Koc et al., 2009 ; Ozkan et al., 2023).
A final term relevant to this study is false-belief understanding. This is our ability to understand that sometimes we can have a belief that does not match with somebody else’s, and sometimes our belief might also not match with the reality. For instance, I may believe that my coat is on my bed because that is where I left it in the morning, but in reality, my coat might now be in the wardrobe if somebody moved it there without my knowledge.
Now that I have briefly defined the relevant terms, it is time to explain our study. Our cross-linguistic study compared Turkish- and English-speaking children’s ability to understand their own and other people’s false-beliefs and their source monitoring and evidentiality skills, as well as their short-term memory and vocabulary skills as baseline abilities. Our participants were 3- and 4-year-old Turkish- and English-speaking children who were monolingual and they did not have any known problems with hearing and producing language. They completed the tasks at their schools or in a lab. The details of the tasks can be found in the article which can be accessed freely, or you can check the Open Science Framework project where the procedures for our age-appropriate tasks are explained.
Our results revealed that Turkish-speaking children’s evidentiality skills predicted their source-monitoring skills, which in turn predicted their false-belief understanding, whereas such connection was not found for English-speaking children. When Turkish- and English-speaking children were compared, we found that the interaction between speaking Turkish and source monitoring skills predicted better false-belief understanding ability. That is, Turkish-speaking children were better at understanding false belief than English-speaking children.
This study was a crucial step towards understanding how language may have an impact on children’s cognitive and social skills, especially when they are measured by tasks that rely on language. To further contribute to this area of research, we are currently focusing on developing an evidentiality task that elicits evidentiality use in languages with or without obligatory evidentiality. Our aim with this research is to expand comparisons between languages beyond Turkish and English and have a more comprehensive understanding of children’s cognitive skills and how they are impacted by the language they speak.
Kandemirci, B., Theakston, A., Boeg Thomsen, T, & Brandt, S. (2023). Does evidentiality support source monitoring and false belief understanding? A cross-linguistic study with Turkish- and English-speaking children Child Development, 1-16.