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False belief understanding in Cantonese-speaking children

  • TWILA TARDIF (a1), HENRY M. WELLMAN (a1) and KAR MAN CHEUNG (a2)

Abstract

The present study investigates the performance of 96 Cantonese-speaking three- to five-year-old preschoolers on three false belief tasks – a deceptive object, a change of location, and an unexpected contents task encompassing a variety of task factors. Most importantly, the research examines the possibility that false belief performance depends on specific linguistic factors such as the type of verb used in the test question – an explicitly false vs. a neutral belief verb. Cantonese was chosen as particularly useful for examining this question because it explicitly codes belief status as either neutral (nam5) or false (ji5wai4), and because it offers additional linguistic and cultural contrasts to research conducted on false belief with children learning English and other Indo-European languages. As expected, a strong age effect was found, as well as a significant advantage for children who received the explicit false belief (ji5wai4) wording and for those who were asked to explain rather than predict the protagonist's actions. Interestingly, there was also a strong task difference with children performing better on the deceptive object task than on the other two false belief tasks. We argue that these results point both to universal trajectories in theory of mind development and to interesting, but localized, effects of language and culture on children's false belief understanding.

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Corresponding author

Twila Tardif, Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, 525 East University, Ann Arbor 48109-1109, USA.

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We wish to thank the children who participated in this study, as well as their parents and their preschools. Funding for this research was provided by Earmarked grant for research CUHK99/H 2120113 from the Hong Kong Research Grants Council to Tardif and by grant HD-22149 to Wellman from the U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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