Home > Papers > Language Promotes False-Belief Understanding: Evidence From Learners of a New Sign Language

Language Promotes False-Belief Understanding: Evidence From Learners of a New Sign Language

Jennie E. Pyers and Ann Senghas
APS 20(7) doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02377.x

Developmental studies have identified a strong correlation in the timing of language development and false-belief understanding. However, the nature of this relationship remains unresolved. Does language promote false-belief understanding, or does it merely facilitate development that could occur independently, albeit on a delayed timescale? We examined language development and false-belief understanding in deaf learners of an emerging sign language in Nicaragua. The use of mental-state vocabulary and performance on a low-verbal false-belief task were assessed, over 2 years, in adult and adolescent users of Nicaraguan Sign Language. Results show that those adults who acquired a nascent form of the language during childhood produce few mental-state signs and fail to exhibit false-belief understanding. Furthermore, those whose language developed over the period of the study correspondingly developed in false-belief understanding. Thus, language learning, over and above social experience, drives the development of a mature theory of mind.

An unusual situation with two cohorts of Nicaraguan Sign Language learners allows for an experiment suggesting a causal relationship between language and false-belief understanding.

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