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Mental terms in mothers' and children's speech: similarities and relationships*

  • David Furrow (a1), Chris Moore (a2), Jane Davidge (a1) and Lorraine Chiasson (a2)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 February 2009

In this study, mental terms in mothers' and their children's speech at two and three years of age were studied in order to examine the relationships between maternal and child use. Nineteen mother and child dyads were videotaped for one hour on each of two days when the children were 2;0 and again for two one-hour sessions on separate days when they were 3;0, and mental terms were noted. The utterances in which mental terms were used were coded for function. Results supported the existing picture of children's mental term use. Few terms appeared at 2;0, but many were used at 3;0 with think and know predominating. Mental terms occurred more commonly in utterances used to regulate the interaction between the participants than in utterances referring to mental states. Children's mental term use mirrored that of their mothers. Further, mothers' use of mental terms for particular functions when their children were 2;0 predicted their children's use at 3;0. While allowing no conclusions about causation, our findings suggest that the development of mental state language, and thus presumably a theory of mind, is fostered by the linguistic environment. Specifically, it is argued that the tendency of mothers to focus their children's attention on mental processes by talking about them and, more importantly, by using utterance types which conceivably direct the children to reflect on their own mental states, is associated with children's use of mental terms.

Corresponding author
Department of Psychology, Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax, NS, CanadaB3M 2J6
Department of Psychology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS, CanadaB3H4J1.
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This research was supported by a grant (No. 410–89–0352) from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to the first and second authors. We would like to thank the parents and children who generously offered their time to us, and Kiran Pure for her assistance in this research.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

M. Beeghly , I. Bretherton & C. Mervis (1986). Mothers' internal state language to toddlers. British Journal of Developmental Psychology 4, 247–61.

I. Bretherton & M. Beeghly (1982). Talking about internal states: the acquisition of an explicit theory of mind. Developmental Psychology 18, 906–21.

R. Brown (1973). A first language: the early stages. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

J. Cohen (1968). Weighted kappa: nominal scale agreement with provision for scaled disagreement or partial credit. Psychological Bulletin 70, 213–20.

C. Johnson & M. Maratsos (1977). Early comprehension of mental verbs: think and know. Child Development 48, 1743–7.

C. Moore , D. Bryant & D. Furrow (1989). Mental terms and the development of certainty. Child Development 60, 167–71.

C. Moore , K. Pure & D. Furrow (1990). Children's understanding of the modal expression of speaker certainty and uncertainty and its relation to the development of a representational theory of mind. Child Development 61, 722–30.

M. Shatz , H. Wellman & S. Silber (1983). The acquisition of mental verbs: a systematic investigation of the first reference to mental state. Cognition 14, 301–21.

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Journal of Child Language
  • ISSN: 0305-0009
  • EISSN: 1469-7602
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-child-language
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