Metacognitive development and the disambiguation effect in monolingual and bilingual children

  • Cornelia Gollek

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Research suggests that children are only able to flexibly apply more than one label (e.g. mouse and animal) in one situation with one conversational partner after they pass standard false belief tasks. Both abilities have been attributed to the understanding of perspective. The aim of the studies was to extend previous research to examine the disambiguation effect, children’s tendency to select an unfamiliar object in the presence of another but familiar object as referent for a novel word. Theoretical considerations suggest this effect initially results from a lack of understanding perspective. Five studies were conducted in Scotland and Austria, involving 243 children between the ages of 2.5 and 6.5. Studies 1 to 3 compared the standard disambiguation task with a task in which a strong pragmatic cue indicates the familiar object is the correct referent. Performances on these tasks were compared with performances on the false belief task, the alternative naming task, as well as tests of executive functioning. Studies 4 and 5 extended these methods to examine bilingual children’s metacognitive abilities in relation to word learning. Children become able to suspend the disambiguation effect when presented with strong pragmatic cues at the same time as they pass false belief and alternative naming tasks (Experiment 1). This can neither be attributed to impulsivity or the ability to inhibit a response, nor order effects of pragmatic cues and novel words (Experiment 2). Children’s ability to apply two labels to one object in a correction task also related to their perspectival understanding. Previous findings that suggested that younger children could produce multiple labels in a misnaming paradigm were not replicated (Experiment 3 a, b). The developmental change in children’s metalinguistic behaviour was demonstrated to follow the same trajectory in monolinguals, bilinguals and children exposed to another language (Experiment 4 and 5). Bilinguals show a marginally better ability to recall novel foreign language labels. The disambiguation effect is the result of cognitive immaturity in young children. Older children show a change in behaviour at the same time as they present more metacognitive maturity. Common development with theory of mind and metalinguistic abilities is attributed to an understanding of perspective.
Date of Award2013
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Stirling
SupervisorMartin J Doherty (Supervisor)


  • Word learning
  • Metacognition
  • Disambiguation effect
  • Theory of Mind
  • Perspectival understanding
  • Bilingual children

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