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The effects of bilingualism on theory of mind development

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 May 2003

Calvin College


This research examines whether an individual's linguistic knowledge, either as a speaker of a particular language or as a bilingual, influences theory of mind development. Three- and four-year-old English monolinguals, Mandarin Chinese monolinguals, and Mandarin-English bilinguals were given appearance-reality, level 2 perspective-taking, and false-belief tasks. All children were tested twice, a week apart; the bilinguals were tested in each of their languages. The 4-year-olds in each group performed significantly better than the corresponding 3-year-olds. Both monolingual groups performed similarly on the tasks, and the bilinguals performed significantly better than the monolingual groups, although when the two testing times were examined separately, they had only a near-significant tendency to perform better at the second testing time. Possible explanations for this evidence of a bilingual advantage are greater inhibitory control, greater metalinguistic understanding, and a greater sensitivity to sociolinguistic interactions with interlocutors.

Research Article
2003 Cambridge University Press

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This research is based in part on a dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. I wish to thank the members of my dissertation committee, Marilyn Shatz, Susan Gelman, Teresa Satterfield, and San Duanmu, for providing thoughtful input and encouragement. I am also grateful to my assistants, Hu Ping, Sheri Lee, and Wang Xiu Zhen. This research was supported by dissertation grants from the Linguistics Program, Psychology Department, and Rackham School of Graduate Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.