A cross-linguistic perspective on mental verbs and false-belief development.

Silke Brandt1, Honglan Li2, Angel Chan2

English caregivers show a strong bias towards using mental verbs with first-person subjects, producing frequent, semantically bleached phrases like "I think". Children’s comprehension of these frequent phrases shows weaker links with false belief than their comprehension of mental verbs with third-person subjects ("he thinks") (Brandt et al., in press). In Chinese, the use of mental verbs is relatively infrequent and caregivers do not show a bias towards using them with first-person subjects (Tardif & Wellman, 2000).

To investigate whether these cross-linguistic differences have an affect on children’s false-belief development, we tested 64 Mandarin-speaking children aged 4;6 and 5;7 and compared them to the English children in Brandt et al. (in press). They saw two boxes. Two hand puppets produced mental verbs and complement clauses to indicate which of the two contained a sticker and how certain they were about this ("I/the cow know(s) it’s in the red box" "I/the frog think(s) it’s in the blue box"). In the first-person condition the puppets spoke for themselves; in the third-person condition the experimenter spoke for them. In a between-subjects design, each child received six trials and took part in four standard false-belief tests.

The Mandarin children only passed the false-belief tests around the age of 5;5. This delayed Theory-of-Mind development was accompanied by a delayed development in their comprehension of mental verbs. However, we also found positive correlations between the older Mandarin children’s comprehension of false belief and mental verbs with third-person subjects and no correlations with mental verbs with first-person subjects.


1. ESRC International Centre for Language and Communicative Development, Lancaster University, UK;

2. The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong