Aboriginal kids can count without numbers

19 August 2008

Knowing the words for numbers is not necessary to be able to count, according to a new study of aboriginal children by UCL (University College London) and the University of Melbourne. The study of the aboriginal children – from two communities which do not have words or gestures for numbers – found that they were able to copy and perform number-related tasks. The findings, published in the journal PNAS, suggest that we possess an innate mechanism for counting, which may develop differently in children with dyscalculia.

Professor Brian Butterworth, lead author from the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, says: “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.

“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.”

The study looked at Australian indigenous populations, who have very restricted vocabularies for numbers. Although gestures are used to communicate in some indigenous Australia societies, there appear to be no gestures for numbers. The study worked with children aged four to seven from two indigenous communities: one on the edge of the Tanami Desert about 400 km north west of Alice Springs where Warlpiri is spoken; the other on Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria, where the local language is Anindilyakwa. Both have words for one, two, few and many, though in Anindilyakwa there are ritual words for numbers to 20, but children will not know these. The team also worked with an English-speaking indigenous group in Melbourne.

Professor Brian Butterworth continues: “In our tasks we couldn’t, for example, ask questions such as “How many?” or “Do these two sets have the same number of objects?” We therefore had to develop special tasks. For example, children were asked to put out counters that matched the number of sounds made by banging two sticks together. Thus, the children had to mentally link numerosities in two different modalities, sounds and actions, which meant they could not rely on visual or auditory patterns alone. They had to use an abstract representation of, for example, the fiveness of the bangs and the fiveness of the counters. We found that Warlpiri and Anindilyakwa children performed as well as or better than the English-speaking children on a range of tasks, and on numerosities up to nine, even though they lacked number words.

“Thus, basic numerical concepts do indeed appear to depend on an innate mechanism. This may help explain why children in numerate cultures with developmental dyscalculia find it so difficult to learn arithmetic. Although they have plenty of formal and informal opportunities to learn to count with words and do arithmetic, the innate mechanism on which skilled arithmetic is based may have developed atypically.”

Notes for Editors

1. For more information, please contact Jenny Gimpel in the UCL Media Relations Office on tel: +44 (0)20 7679 9726, mobile: +44 (0)7747 565 056, out of hours +44 (0)7917 271 364, e-mail: j.gimpel@ucl.ac.uk.

2. ‘Numerical thought with and without words: Evidence from indigenous Australian children’, by B. Butterworth, R. Reeve, F. Reynolds and D. Lloyd, is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS). Journalists can obtain copies of the paper by contacting the UCL Media Relations Office.

3. This study was funded by the Leverhulme Trust.