Aboriginal children who lack words for numbers above two can still count the number of objects in a set, and can even perform basic arithmetic, according to a new study. Previous studies had suggested that words for specific numbers are needed for children to develop the concepts of numbers above three. But the new research suggests that humans may have an innate “number competency.” Says lead researcher Brian Butterworth: “We’re born with the ability to see the world numerically just as we’re born to see the world in colour” [BBC News].
The researchers tested Aboriginal children between the ages of 4 and 7, as well as a control group of English-speaking children from Melbourne. The Aboriginal children spoke the languages Warlpiri and Anindilyakwa, which lack a vocabulary for numbers beyond words for one, two, few, and many. “It’s not just that these cultures lack the words for numbers: they just don’t count things,” said Butterworth. Nevertheless, the kids counted just as well — and often better — than their English-speaking counterparts…. “I see it as part of a larger issue,” said Butterworth. “What kinds of cognitive tools are provided by culture, and what is provided by us when we come into the world?” [Wired News]
In the experiment, which was reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [subscription required], the children were asked to “copy” the number of objects the researchers placed on a mat. They then had to repeat the exercise when objects were added under a cover – so they could not see how many objects were now there but had to work it out. In the most complex task, the children had to match the right number of counters to the number of times the researcher banged two sticks together [BBC News].
Study co-author Robert Reeve says the results may indicate that humans are born with a “number sense” that allows them to intuitively understand the basic rules of counting, addition, and subtraction. Reeve adds that the study also has implications for the way numeracy is taught to very young children. “Much of our education is currently based on language,” he says. “We need to ensure that there is a mapping between these basic concepts and the concepts you’re trying to teach” [ABC Science].
Take a look at earlier findings on the relation between counting and language among Amazonian people in the DISCOVER article, “Counting Without Numbers.”