This project investigates how children come to learn the meaning of verbs that describe mental states such a "think" or "want". Such verbs are important for several reasons: first, unlike action verbs like "run," they describe internal states that are not easily observable. Second, such verbs have often been used as a window into children's understanding of other people's minds. Children seem to make consistent mistakes in their understanding of verbs like "think". This is often taken to reflect an initial inability to attribute mental states (such as beliefs) to others (so-called 'theory of mind'). However, our understanding of children's linguistic representation of mental verbs at various stages of development is lacking in important ways. Yet, such an understanding is crucial before causal claims can be made about the connection between language and theory of mind. Several factors could be responsible for children's linguistic mistakes. In particular, we explore the hypothesis that the difficulty children experience with these verbs is neither conceptual, nor grammatical in nature, but derives from mastering how these verbs are used in conversation.

One of the central aims of this research is to develop tools for determining whether success or failure in some linguistic task is driven by grammatical knowledge or the reasoning associated with using this knowledge. Consequently, this research will have clear implications for language delay, and disorders of language and cognition, such as Autism. In addition, this project will provide funding and research experience to graduate and undergraduate students. Graduate students working on the project will serve as near-peer mentors to the undergraduate students. This arrangement provides graduate students with mentoring experience, better preparing them for research positions, and providing a model for graduate training beyond individual research.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Joan Maling
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University of Maryland College Park
College Park
United States
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