Date of Award
Master of Arts
Research based on children's performance on standard false-belief reasoning tasks indicates that theory of mind (ToM) understanding, (i.e. the ability to represent, conceptualize, and reason about one's own and others' mental states) is initially absent and develops around the age of four years (Wellman et al., 2001). Recently, researchers have investigated the relationship between language and ToM development. According to de Villiers & Pyers (2002) understanding of embedded complement structures is necessary for children to be able to understand false belief, because both require the ability to handle misrepresentation. Following Perner (1991), Smith et al. (2003) argued (contra De Villiers & Pyers) that the developmental link between embedded clauses and false belief reasoning skills stems instead from a requirement to handle metarepresentation. They proposed that children's aptitude with double-event relative clauses predicts their false-belief reasoning ability. Previous research on linguistic precursors of false belief understanding has focused largely on English speaking children. The current research hypothesized that crosslinguistic differences in the emergence of ToM understanding could result because of the potential for a developmental link between ToM understanding and other linguistic properties (e.g. scrambling), found in free word order languages, such as Russian. The current research sought to determine whether there is a correlation between the development of false belief reasoning skills and the acquisition of relativization in monolingual Russian speaking children; and to find out whether the acquisition of scrambled word orders (e.g. OVS) is a better predictor of false belief reasoning in child Russian. The participants of the study were 36 monolingual Russian children: 18 3-year-olds (Mean age = 3;6) and 18 4-year-olds (Mean Age= 4;6). We assessed the children's false belief understanding using the unexpected contents task and the unexpected transfer task and their ability to handle relative clauses and scrambled (OVS) word order through a Truth-Value judgment (TVJ) act-out task (Crain & Thornton, 1998). Our results confirm the previously established link between age and false belief reasoning. However, the results failed to support previous findings regarding the status of relative clauses as a linguistic precursor for the development of False Belief reasoning. The results also failed to confirm our predictions regarding the privileged role of scrambling (i.e. OVS sentences) in Russian children's ToM development. Our findings suggest that OVS sentences might be more difficult for Russian children to handle compared to relative clauses with the canonical SVO order, regardless of age the Russian children performed better on relative clauses than on scrambled OVS sentences -- this leads us to conclude -- "Syntax is easy! Pragmatics is hard!" Also there were no age related differences in relation to either relative clauses or scrambled word order sentences. Additionally, for child Russian, de Villiers & Peyers proposal regarding the privileged role of embedded complement clauses as a linguistic precursor to TOM development cannot yet be ruled out.
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