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The Status of Language in the Development of a Theory of Mind

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THE STATUS OF LANGUAGE IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF A THEORY OF MIND NENE HARRISON MA Linguistics May 1st 2002 Tutor: Neil Smith The study of the development of 'theory of mind' skills in children became popular when the false-belief task was invented in the 1980's, providing cognitive scientists with the focus of a clear experimental paradigm. This tested the ability of the young child to attribute false beliefs to others in order to explain their actions. Researchers then began to investigate the developmental stages through which children acquire these theory of mind abilities. This essay will examine the nature of this acquisition process, studying two opposing views of theory of mind development in the young child; whether it can be explained by the modular nature of the cognitive process, where the ability is innate but must be triggered by input from the child's environment, or whether it exists as a developing theory, a set of causal principles progressively formulated by the child through observation and hypothesis formation. We also consider the role played by the language faculty, particularly the question of whether the acquisition of a natural language is causally necessary for the development of a theory of mind in the young child. A 'theory of mind' refers to the cognitive ability to interpret, predict and explain the behaviour of others in terms of their underlying mental states. This theory is universal among all normal humans, and becomes accessible during childhood. It is also metarepresentational. It demands that we not only employ propositional attitudes, but also that we employ them about propositional attitudes; we have beliefs about the beliefs of ourselves and others. This also applies in cases where the embedded belief is false. The original false belief test pioneered by Wimmer and Perner [1], involved a character, Maxi, who places some chocolate in some location and then leaves the room. The chocolate is moved to a different location, and the child is then asked where Maxi will look for the chocolate when he returns. ...read more.


They finally arrive at an alternative to their original theory, the adult theory of mind. Another objection to the theory theory view is illustrated by sufferers of Williams syndrome; children suffering from Williams syndrome are able to acquire theories of mind, but are severely impaired when it comes to acquiring theories in all other areas. This suggests that the theoretical acquisition processes involved in developing a theory of mind are specialised, a prediction made by the domain specificity of the modularist view. There is a clear parallel in the language faculty, where acquisition is also task-specific; children do not acquire language using general learning processes that can apply in various domains. Instead the faculty deploys very specific principles which are only suitable for learning language. The theory theorists use the different worlds argument in defence of their view. As noted above, all children develop the same, adult end-state theory of mind. The theory theory predicts that were we to place the child in a radically different environment, this end-state theory, based on the data available to the child, would be accordingly different, while the modularity hypothesis predicts that the resulting theory would be the same regardless of the environment. Gopnik and Meltzoff [11] suggest, There is, in principle, a simple experiment that could always discriminate modularity theory and theory theory. Place some children in a universe that is radically different from our own, keep them healthy and sane for a reasonably long period of time, and see what they come up with. If they come up with representations that are an accurate account of our universe, modularity is right. If they come up with representations that are an accurate account of their universe, the theory theory is right. They go on to describe hypothetical situations of significantly different environments, predicting that human children subject to such altered input would develop accordingly accurate theories, theories different to those acquired in our normal environment. ...read more.


as a request to remove her belongings from the neighbouring seat clearly involves the construction of a number of complex inferences about the speaker's intentions. When we consider more sophisticated communicative phenomena such as irony and reported speech, the required inferences become even more complex. However, Papafragou entertains the suggestion that the success of early communication may simply be due to the child's increasing familiarity with conversational routines; for instance the child knows that an expression of his inability to perform a given task is likely to result in a parent coming to his aid. Papafragou also suggests that a theory of mind is heavily involved in particular elements of vocabulary acquisition, especially for morphemes which encode metarepresentational concepts, such as evidentials (e.g. allegedly and probably), 'the ability to reason evidentially about the origins, strength and reliability of our beliefs is part of our ability to reason about mental states in general' [20] and epistemic modals (e.g. must and may), 'successful use of epistemic modals requires the speaker to perform deductive operations on abstract propositions (i.e. on the content of her beliefs)' [21]. Conclusion Neither the modular nor the theoretical accounts of theory of mind development seem to have all the answers; it is possible that in reality a combination of both paradigms exist, where an innate core architecture is revised internally based on the child's experiences. However it does seem that the purely theoretical view relies on the circular reasoning that the child must alter its theory when confronted by contradictory data, which cannot be recognised unless the child has already acquired a theory of mind. It appears that the development of the child's linguistic abilities does not proceed in isolation, but feeds into and is influenced by the development of other modules of the mind, such as that of theory of mind, which is in turn influenced by the workings of the language faculty; this mutual dependence implies that the development timetables of the two faculties are also intertwined at each stage of the child's development. ...read more.

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