How children talk about their desires: A corpus study of ‘want’
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Description: Children’s production of mental state verbs can reveal evidence of their theory of mind and general cognitive development. Children produce a certain class of mental state verbs, namely desire verbs such as 'want', 'like', and 'love', early in development. Among these desire verbs, they produce 'want' the most frequently. We report on a corpus study of 450+ instances of 'want' as gathered from children’s dialogues with caretakers in the CHILDES database. We developed a novel coding scheme to measure children’s use and understanding of 'want' utterances: i.e., we sought to track the contents of their desires and the agents children predicated desires about. We report on the frequencies of these features across the ages of 2-4, and highlight noteworthy trends in the way children learn to use 'want'. Children appear to talk about their own desires most often; they primarily use questions to talk about second person desires; and they desire more complex objects as they mature. We describe how these patterns of linguistic competency may serve as an index of a developing theory of mind.