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Doctoral dissertation project of Claudia Rizzo

Advanced Theory of Mind and reference management (working title)

Everyday communication requires more than language ability. Rather, human communication is built through the integration of different and constantly changing types of information. Speakers and listeners need to effectively (re)-combine their common knowledge, their intentions, emotions and the linguistic and non-linguistic cues that surround them in order to properly transfer their intended messages. Certainly, speakers need to take into account the perspective of their interlocutors (and vice-versa) for an effective communication. A visible manifestation of this complexity of communication is the use of referential expressions, I.E. linguistic means through which humans refer to entities, characters and objects of the world. Languages differ in their inventory of referential expressions and their use is further guided by developmental and cognitive factors, such as Working Memory and Theory of Mind.

A fundamental and ineradicable aspect of human life, Theory of Mind (ToM) seems to support everyday interactions. It is traditionally defined as the mental ability which allows the understanding that other people have minds too, with beliefs, desires and intentions, possibly distinct from other people’s. As a multi-component ability it includes social understanding, the recognition of mental states and perspective taking. Furthermore, it sustains higher-order language abilities, such as the comprehension of irony and sarcasm. Therefore, ToM could be considered as one of the main feature of humanity and of its complex and constant social endowment. People manifesting inadequate and poor social behaviours, such as children and adults within the Autism Spectrum Disorder, are generally believed to suffer from some impairments in their ToM.

In my project I will investigate how ToM abilities and their development affect the use of the referential expressions in bilingual children of different language pairs. Particularly, bilinguals are known to manifest a different-from-monolinguals referential behaviour, possibly because of their intense social exposure to distinct languages or because of their distinctness in the development, functioning and maintenance of Executive Functions, strongly interrelated mental processes necessary for higher order cognitive abilities.


Short biography

Claudia Rizzo studied Italian literature at the University of Verona, Italy. Thereafter, she majored in Linguistics at the same university focusing in neuro-psycholinguistics and cognitive sciences. Her M.A thesis dealt with learning disability such as Developmental Dyslexia and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders and the eventual beneficial effects of bilingualism on these disorders. Since July 2017 she has been working in the Project C03 "Reference management in bilingual narratives" of SFB 1252 "Prominence in Language", and holds a collegiate position in the a.r.t.e.s. graduate class 8. Her interests include bilingualism and multilingualism, language acquisition and the relationship between language and cognition.

Contact: crizzo1(at)


Cover photo: “The Director paradigm”. Claudia Rizzo with some of the children tested in Athens, November 2017 (Photo: Claudia Rizzo) // Portrait photo: Patric Fouad