Let's pretend: How pretence scaffolds the acquisition of theory of mind

De Villiers and de Villiers (2000) propose that the acquisition of the syntactic device of sentential complementation is a necessary condition for the acquisition of theory of mind (ToM). It might be argued that ToM mastery is simply a consequence of grammatical development. On the other hand, there is also good evidence (Garfield, Peterson & Perry 2001) that social learning is involved in ToM acquisition. We investigate the connection between linguistic and social-cognitive development, arguing that pretence is crucially involved in the acquisition of ToM. We demonstrate that successful understanding of pretence discourse, including the syntactic and semantic properties of sentential complements in the context of verbs of pretence, develops well before ToM as measured by standard tests of false belief understanding. We argue that pretence plays a crucial role in cognitive development, allowing children to gain familiarity with mental representations that fail to accord with reality, and allowing them to learn the syntax and semantics of verbs taking sentential complements, thus enabling conversational exchange involving embedded complement clauses and the acquisition of ToM. We also demonstrate that the developmental track of pretence and ToM allows us to see how social, conceptual and linguistic development work together to scaffold the development of the understanding of mind. We conclude that children’s early involvement in pretend play and conversation paves the way both for their subsequent development of a ToM-based understanding of the mind as a guiding network of propositional attitudes, and for their further development of syntactic competence with complementation for doxastic and epistemic verbs.
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