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Research in the Language and Social Development Lab

Research in the Language and Social Development lab covers three main areas:

  • The role of cognitive development in early social understanding

  • Mental state language and the development of social understanding

  • Interactions between culture, social understanding and wellbeing

Find out more about individual Lab members' research interests at Our people.

Current studies taking place in the Lab

Foundations of Social Understanding in Toddlerhood

We are currently running a longitudinal study which examines how the skills children learn in toddlerhood help them develop social understanding of others. 

Our aim is to construct a comprehensive understanding of how various aspects known to influence social understanding relate to each other; at the point at which they emerge - and then - over the course of toddlerhood.

ToM task with birds

Parent-child Conversations about Mental States

Language which refers to the mind assists children’s social understanding. Our findings suggest that the conversations children have with their parents help them to gradually build on their knowledge of the mind – first by talking about their own desires and then about the thoughts of others.

We also explore how children’s early cognitive development influences the effects of mental state talk. Our work suggests that a child’s ability to recognise themselves as a person is a crucial pivot point – enabling them to benefit from references to what other people might think.

Reading intervention3_mother

Culture and Social Understanding

Very few studies have examined parent-child conversations in non-Western cultures.

Findings from our recent study with Pacific Island families suggest the possibility of alternative pathways to children’s social understanding. The degree of ethnic identity influenced parents’ tendency to refer to their child’s mental states – with siblings playing an important role in toddlers’ understanding of their social world.

We are currently examining how Iranian and New Zealand European children’s early socialisation experiences influence their understanding of others’ desires, thoughts, knowledge, and feelings.

As well as comparing patterns of social development across cultures, we study the extent to which within-culture variation in social values influences the way parents support the social development of their children.

Reading intervention2_pacificmother

Connectedness and Pacific Teenagers’ Wellbeing


New Zealand born Pacific people experience higher rates of mental disorder than the general New Zealand population.

In collaboration with the Pacific Trust Otago and Associate professor Tony Merriman (Biochemistry department, University of Otago), we are working to understand this issue better. Preliminary findings suggest that the more Pacific teenagers feel connected with their Pacific identity, the better their mental health and the more at ease they feel talking with their parents.

We are building on this work through a qualitative study which aims to identify culturally specific factors that parents consider important for their teenagers’ wellbeing.

If you would like to learn more about our research please contact the Lab manager:

Jess Aitken

Tel 64 3 470 3497
Email jessica.aitken.otago.ac.nz