Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

How children talk about their desires: A corpus study of ‘want’


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, wish, and hope, 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.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View