Researchers at UC Berkeley found in a study that the ability to understand exact numerical values is reliant on language.
The researchers, who work both on campus and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published their findings in an article titled “Exact Number Concepts Are Limited to the Verbal Count Range.” In the article, the authors found that one’s ability to conceptualize a number is reliant on one’s knowledge of that number’s word.
“To put it this way: If you don’t have a word for that number, then you don’t have the concept of that number,” said Benjamin Pitt, a postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley and co-author of the study.
Pitt stated their research focused on members of the Indigenous Tsimané culture of Bolivia. He explained they were chosen due to how their ability to count differs greatly from adult to adult, providing researchers with a better opportunity to study the cognitive origins of counting.
Study co-author and professor of cognitive science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Edward Gibson elaborated that the Tsimané culture’s counting abilities differ so greatly because the schooling among the Tsimané is very informal, with some children going to schools that don’t emphasize teaching mathematics.
To perform this experiment, Pitt and his co-authors placed a certain number of pebbles onto a table, and asked volunteers to place the same number of pebbles onto the table. Pitt and his co-authors found that their ability to match the number of pebbles is reliant on their knowledge of the word for that number.
“If they can count to ten and you give them a set of seven or eight, they can probably make a numerical match. But if you give them a set of 11 or 12 or 14, then they can’t reliably reproduce that,” Pitt said. “What this shows is that you need to know that numerical language to count that high.”
Gibson said that people in industrialized cultures are often surprised to hear that there are some cultures that don’t count to high values. He says that even researchers are surprised to hear this, as they believe that this ability to count is innate rather than taught.
Gibson pointed to the Pirahã culture of Brazil as a strong example of the necessity of language to conceptualize numbers. Gibson added that the Pirahã, who have no numbers, only quantify in approximates.
“For the Pirahã, approximate is right,” Gibson said. “It’s a part of their culture.”
According to Gibson, everyone has the potential to quantify high numbers, depending on our level of teaching.
Pitt said that a similar study he co-authored further suggests that the culture to which one belongs influences how those people conceptualize numbers. He points out that while people in Western cultures tend to organize numbers from left to right, the Tsimané have no such association.
“A lot that we take for granted, such as the way we think, is strongly culturally determined,” Pitt said.
Pitt says that understanding how different cultures conceptualize numbers can help researchers develop educational programs and curricula for people in these groups while simultaneously being culturally sensitive.