Early bilingualism enhances mechanisms of false-belief reasoning

Authors


Address for correspondence: Ágnes M. Kovács, International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA), Cognitive Neuroscience Sector, Via Beirut 2-4, 34014, Trieste, Italy; e-mail: kovacs@sissa.it

Abstract

In their first years, children's understanding of mental states seems to improve dramatically, but the mechanisms underlying these changes are still unclear. Such ‘theory of mind’ (ToM) abilities may arise during development, or have an innate basis, developmental changes reflecting limitations of other abilities involved in ToM tasks (e.g. inhibition). Special circumstances such as early bilingualism may enhance ToM development or other capacities required by ToM tasks. Here we compare 3-year-old bilinguals and monolinguals on a standard ToM task, a modified ToM task and a control task involving physical reasoning. The modified ToM task mimicked a language-switch situation that bilinguals often encounter and that could influence their ToM abilities. If such experience contributes to an early consolidation of ToM in bilinguals, they should be selectively enhanced in the modified task. In contrast, if bilinguals have an advantage due to better executive inhibitory abilities involved in ToM tasks, they should outperform monolinguals on both ToM tasks, inhibitory demands being similar. Bilingual children showed an advantage on the two ToM tasks but not on the control task. The precocious success of bilinguals may be associated with their well-developed control functions formed during monitoring and selecting languages.

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