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Dev Psychol. 2007 Sep;43(5):1156-69.

Language access and theory of mind reasoning: evidence from deaf children in bilingual and oralist environments.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, Goteborg University, Goteborg, Sweden.


This investigation examined whether access to sign language as a medium for instruction influences theory of mind (ToM) reasoning in deaf children with similar home language environments. Experiment 1 involved 97 deaf Italian children ages 4-12 years: 56 were from deaf families and had LIS (Italian Sign Language) as their native language, and 41 had acquired LIS as late signers following contact with signers outside their hearing families. Children receiving bimodal/bilingual instruction in LIS together with Sign-Supported and spoken Italian significantly outperformed children in oralist schools in which communication was in Italian and often relied on lipreading. Experiment 2 involved 61 deaf children in Estonia and Sweden ages 6-16 years. On a wide variety of ToM tasks, bilingually instructed native signers in Estonian Sign Language and spoken Estonian succeeded at a level similar to age-matched hearing children. They outperformed bilingually instructed late signers and native signers attending oralist schools. Particularly for native signers, access to sign language in a bilingual environment may facilitate conversational exchanges that promote the expression of ToM by enabling children to monitor others' mental states effectively.

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