Mahesh Srinivasan
Assistant Professor
3315 Tolman Hall
Office Hours: 
By appointment
Ph.D., Harvard University
Research Area: 
Secondary Research Area: 
Curriculum Vitae: 
Research Interests: 
How representations of language and concepts arise and interact in human development and across cultures. Specific interests include flexible and pragmatic uses of language (e.g., polysemy, metaphor, implicature), the representation of abstract concepts (e.g., time, number), linguistic relativity, and social cognitive development in different cultural contexts.
  • whatshotResearch Description

    Compared to other animals, humans are unique in their linguistic, cognitive, and social abilities. Broadly speaking, the Language and Cognitive Development Lab explores how these abilities develop and interact in children, as a way of addressing the question of what makes humans special. Below are three themes currently being pursued in our lab:

    Flexibility in Language and Thought. One focus of our research is on what children’s early use of language reveals about how we structure our ideas. To this end, our lab explores children’s ability to use words flexibly. Flexibility is widespread in language, and for example, is evident in our use of words for space to describe time (“Christmas is approaching”), words for animals to describe the meat derived from those animals (“The chicken is salty”), and words for artifacts to describe functional uses of those artifacts (“She shoveled the snow”). Our research indicates that, from early in life, children expect language to be used flexibly, and that this may reflect the basic ways in which children understand and construe the world. Consistent with this, we have found striking parallels with respect to flexibility across languages, suggesting that flexibility may reveal universal cognitive biases. Our ongoing research explores whether learning to use language flexibly may shape cognition, and whether variation in flexibility across languages results in cognitive differences among speakers of different languages.   

    Pragmatics and Language Development. A second focus of our research is to explore how linguistic development relates to children’s developing ability to reason pragmatically about the knowledge and intentions of others. Everyday language is replete with examples in which the meaning we derive from an utterance goes beyond what the utterance itself literally entails. Thus, if we ask a friend if they want to come to our party and they reply that they “have homework to do”, we may infer that they do not want to come to the party, even though they have not said so. Further, an ability to understand others’ intentions and goals may also be critical to even the most basic inferences that children make about the  meanings of new words. However, a great deal of research has indicated that children under the age of four struggle to understand the mental states of others, and especially to realize that other people can have different beliefs about the world than they do. Our research explores this tension, with the goal of clarifying how children’s language development may depend upon their developing social cognitive abilities.

    Social Cognitive Development in Different Cultural Contexts. In recent years, scientists have begun to elucidate the foundations of the basic human tendencies to form biases toward different social groups, to cooperate and help others, and to make moral judgments. However, this research has been conducted primarily in western, industrialized societies, leaving open how variation across different cultures may shape these basic tendencies. In recent work, our lab has explored some of these questions in urban India, examining the implications for social cognitive development posed by unique cultural constructs such as the Hindu caste system. Our research considers the role of culture in shaping our social identities and dispositions. 

  • placeSelected Publications

    To view the below articles, please see

    Xu, Y., Malt, B. & Srinivasan, M (2017). Evolution of word meanings through metaphorical mapping: Systematicity over the past millenium. Cognitive Psychology, 96, 41-53.

    Tillman, K., Marghetis, T., Barner, D. & Srinivasan, M. (2017). Today is tomorrow’s yesterday: Children’s acquisition of deictic time words. Cognitive Psychology, 92, 87-100.

    Srinivasan, M., Al-Mughairy, S., Foushee, R., Barner, D. (2017). Learning language from within: Children use semantic generalizations to infer new word meanings.Cognition, 159, 11-24.

    Srinivasan, M., & Barner, D. (2016). Encoding individuals in language using syntax, words, and pragmatic inference. WIREs Cognitive Science, 7(5), 341-353.

    Srinivasan, M. & Rabagliati, H (2015). How concepts and conventions structure the lexicon: Cross-linguistic evidence from polysemy. Lingua, 157, 124-152.

    Srinivasan, M., Dunham, Y., Hicks, C. & Barner, D. (2015). Do attitudes toward societal structure predict beliefs about free will and achievement? Evidence from the Indian caste system. Developmental Science, 19(1), 109-125.

    Dunham, Y., Srinivasan, M., Dotsch, R. & Barner, D. (2014). Religion insulates ingroup evaluations: The development of intergroup attitudes in India. Developmental Science, 17(2), 311-319.

    Srinivasan, M. & Snedeker, J. (2014). Polysemy and the taxonomic constraint: Children’s representations of words with taxonomically-different meanings. Language Learning and Development, 10(2), 97-128.

    Srinivasan, M. & Barner, D. (2013). The Amelia Bedelia effect: World knowledge and the goal bias in language acquisition. Cognition, 128, 431-450.

    Srinivasan, M., Chestnut, E., Li, P., & Barner, D. (2013). Sortal concepts and pragmatic inference in children’s early quantification of objects. Cognitive Psychology, 66, 302-326.

    Srinivasan, M. & Snedeker, J. (2011). Judging a book by its cover and its contents: The representation of polysemous and homophonous meanings in four-year-old children. Cognitive Psychology, 62, 245-272.

    Srinivasan, M. & Carey, S. (2010). The long and the short of it: On the nature and origin of functional overlap between representations of space and time. Cognition, 116, 217-241.

    Srinivasan, M. (2010). Do classifiers affect cognitive processing? A study of nominal classification in Mandarin Chinese. Language and Cognition, 2(2), 177-190.

  • filter_dramaTeaching

    Psychology 143 / Linguistic 146: Language Development

    Psychology 240A: Cognition, Language, and Brain Development Proseminar