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Is The Ability To Count Innate?

August 19, 2008

The human ability to count is innate, and is not reliant on numbers or language to express it, according to a team of British and Australian researchers.

Brian Butterworth and colleagues of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London set out to prove that Australian Aboriginal children were able to count even though their languages don’t have number words.

All the groups performed just as well as English-speaking children, researchers reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Recently, an extreme form of linguistic determinism has been revived which claims that counting words are needed for children to develop concepts of numbers above three. That is, to possess the concept of ‘five’ you need a word for five. Evidence from children in numerate societies, but also from Amazonian adults whose language does not contain counting words, has been used to support this claim,” said Butterworth.

“However, our study of aboriginal children suggests that we have an innate system for recognizing and representing numerosities ““ the number of objects in a set ““ and that the lack of a number vocabulary should not prevent us from doing numerical tasks that do not require number words.”

Overall, 45 indigenous Australian children aged between four and seven years were studied from two communities which do not have words or gestures for numbers.

“In our tasks we couldn’t, for example, ask questions such as “ËœHow many?’ or “ËœDo these two sets have the same number of objects?’ We therefore had to develop special tasks,” Butterworth added.

For example, children were asked to put out counters that matched the number of sounds made by banging two sticks together.

“Perhaps the most striking result comes from the cross-modal matching task, where the child has to put out the number of counters corresponding to a sequence of auditory events,” Butterworth said. “This cannot be done using visual memory, but requires the child to generate a mental representation that is abstract enough to serve to represent both auditory and visual enumeration.”

It looks like all the children in the study are using approximate matching to solve the tasks at hand, a strategy which does not rely on the use of number words, said co-author Robert Reeve of the University of Melbourne, Australia.

“Our findings are consistent with the idea that we have an innate system for representing quantity ideas and that the lack of number words in a language should not prevent us from completing simple number and computation tasks,” he added.

Butterworth said: “We’re born with the ability to see the world numerically just as we’re born to see the world in color.”

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