Nicaraguan Sign Language and Theory of Mind: the issue of critical periods and abilities

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Abstract

Background

Previous studies in the literature report that deaf individuals who experience late access to language perform poorly on false belief tests of Theory of Mind (ToM) compared with age-matched deaf and hearing controls exposed to language early.

Methods

A group of 22 deaf Nicaraguans (aged 7 to 39 years) who learned Nicaraguan Sign Language (ISN) at different ages were tested on a false belief and a nonverbal cartoon retell task designed to elicit talk about the contents of character's mental states.

Results

Access to sign language by 10 years of age with possible advantages in language fluency was a strong predictor of performance on both the false belief task and mental state narrative task. However, a comparison of performance on the two tests indicated that children and adults who learned sign after the age of 10 were still able to demonstrate a more general ability to use mental state expressions in narratives. Results are discussed in terms of late access to language and critical periods for the parallel development of Theory of Mind and language.

Conclusions

The findings point to age 10 years as a crucial period when lack of language exposure can lead to long-lasting deficits in false belief abilities. Late exposure to sign language does not, however, rule out all aspects of the ability to consider others' mental states. This paper also highlights the need to take into consideration a variety of communication responses when evaluating deaf children's ToM reasoning.

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