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Language access and mentalizing abilities: Evidence from bilingually and orally instructed deaf children in Estonia, Sweden and Italy.

Conference paper
Authors Marek Meristo
Kerstin Watson Falkman
Erland Hjelmquist
M Tedoldi
L Surian
L Siegal
Published in The 8th Tokyo Conference on Psycholinguistics, Tokyo, Japan, 16-17 March, 2007
ISBN 4-89476-264-1
Publication year 2007
Published at Department of Psychology
Language en
Keywords Cognitive development, deafness, theory of mind
Subject categories Psychology


We report the results of two studies designed to examine the effects of access to language at home and school on the mentalizing abilities of deaf children. The children were either from families with a parental deaf signer and acquired a sign language as their native language or were from hearing families and acquired a sign language later in their development. Some children attended oralist schools where instruction was in a spoken language and communication often relied on lip-reading. Others attended bilingual schools where both a sign and spoken language were used. In our first study, 75 deaf children in Estonia and Sweden aged 6 to 16 years were compared on a battery of mentalizing tasks concerning others’ beliefs and emotions. Native signers attending a school using sign language outperformed those from an oralist school as well as deaf children from hearing homes either educated at a signing or an oralist school. In our second study, the participants were 97 Italian deaf children aged 4 to 12 years. There was no significant difference in theory of mind reasoning using “thought picture” measures between bilingually instructed Italian native signers and a group of 56 hearing children aged 3 to 7 years. However, the hearing children significantly outperformed the oralist-instructed native and late signers regardless of the language of instruction. We discuss these results in terms of the advantage of continuing access to a sign language for native signers that may serve to promote conversational-attentional resources that facilitate mentalizing abilities.

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