Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Words help people form mathematical concepts

Language may play an important role in learning the meanings of numbers, scholars at the University of Chicago report.

A study based on research on deaf people in Nicaragua who never learned formal sign language showed that people who communicate using self-developed gestures, called homesigns, were unable to comprehend the value of numbers greater than three because they had not learned a language containing symbols used for counting.

By contrast, deaf people who acquire conventional sign language as children can learn the meaning of large numbers. Researchers believe this is because conventional sign language, like spoken languages, imparts a counting routine early in childhood.

The study illustrates the complexity of learning the symbolic relationships embedded in language, including seemingly simple numerical concepts. The work may help researchers learn more about how language shapes the way children learn early mathematical concepts, and how that crucial process can go awry in the preschool years.

"It's not just the vocabulary words that matter, but understanding the relationships that underlie the words––the fact that 'eight' is one more than 'seven' and one less than 'nine.' Without having a set of number words to guide them, deaf homesigners in the study failed to understand that numbers build on each other in value," said Susan Goldin-Meadow, the Bearsdley Ruml Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology at the University.

The findings are reported in the paper, "Number Without a Language Model," published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The lead author is University researcher Elizabet Spaepen, a 2008 Ph.D. graduate in psychology who did field work in Nicaragua as part of the study.

Inability to think rather than communicate about numbers

Scholars have previously found that people in isolated cultures do not learn the value of large numbers when they are not part of the local language. Two groups studied in the Amazon, for instance, do not have words for numbers greater than five and are unable to match two rows of checkers containing more than five items. Their local culture does not require the use of exact large numbers, which could explain the Amazonians' difficulty with them.

However, most Nicaraguans do use exact numbers in everyday monetary transactions. Although the deaf homesigners in the UChicago study understood the relative worth of different currency items, they apparently had an incomplete understanding of their numerical values because they had never been taught number words, Spaepen said.

For the study, scholars gave homesigners a series of tasks to determine how well they could recognize money. They were shown 10-unit and 20-unit bills and asked which had more value. When asked if nine 10-unit coins had more or less value than a 100-unit bill, each of the homesigners was able to determine the money's relative value.

"The coins and bills used in Nicaraguan currency vary in size and color according to value, which give clues to their value, even if the user has no knowledge of numbers," Spaepen said. The deaf homesigners could learn about currency based on its color and shape without fully understanding its numerical value.

To see if the homesigners could express numerical value outside of the context of money, the scholars showed them animated videos in which numbers were an important part of the plot. They then asked the deaf individuals to retell the video to a friend or relative using homesigns. As the numbers grew, the homesigners became increasingly less able to produce an accurate gesture for the number with their fingers.

They were then shown cards with different numbers of items on them, and asked to give a gesture that represented the number of items. The homesigners were accurate only up to the number 3. In addition, they had difficulty making a second row of checkers match a target row when there were more than three checkers in the target, despite the fact that this task did not require any comprehension or production of number gestures. Their difficulty in understanding large numbers therefore did not stem from an inability to communicate about large numbers, but rather from an inability to think about them, the researchers concluded.

Researchers performed the tests on hearing, unschooled Nicaraguans, as well as deaf individuals trained in American Sign Language. Both groups outperformed the Nicaraguan homesigners in the study.

Other authors on the paper are Marie Coppola, Assistant Professor in Psychology at the University of Connecticut; Elizabeth Spelke, the Marshall L. Berkman Professor of Psychology at Harvard University; and Susan Carey, Professor of Psychology at Harvard.

The work was supported with grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

William Harms | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Studies and Analyses:

nachricht Rutgers-led innovation could spur faster, cheaper, nano-based manufacturing
14.02.2018 | Rutgers University

nachricht New study from the University of Halle: How climate change alters plant growth
12.01.2018 | Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg

All articles from Studies and Analyses >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Locomotion control with photopigments

Researchers from Göttingen University discover additional function of opsins

Animal photoreceptors capture light with photopigments. Researchers from the University of Göttingen have now discovered that these photopigments fulfill an...

Im Focus: Surveying the Arctic: Tracking down carbon particles

Researchers embark on aerial campaign over Northeast Greenland

On 15 March, the AWI research aeroplane Polar 5 will depart for Greenland. Concentrating on the furthest northeast region of the island, an international team...

Im Focus: Unique Insights into the Antarctic Ice Shelf System

Data collected on ocean-ice interactions in the little-researched regions of the far south

The world’s second-largest ice shelf was the destination for a Polarstern expedition that ended in Punta Arenas, Chile on 14th March 2018. Oceanographers from...

Im Focus: ILA 2018: Laser alternative to hexavalent chromium coating

At the 2018 ILA Berlin Air Show from April 25–29, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT is showcasing extreme high-speed Laser Material Deposition (EHLA): A video documents how for metal components that are highly loaded, EHLA has already proved itself as an alternative to hard chrome plating, which is now allowed only under special conditions.

When the EU restricted the use of hexavalent chromium compounds to special applications requiring authorization, the move prompted a rethink in the surface...

Im Focus: Radar for navigation support from autonomous flying drones

At the ILA Berlin, hall 4, booth 202, Fraunhofer FHR will present two radar sensors for navigation support of drones. The sensors are valuable components in the implementation of autonomous flying drones: they function as obstacle detectors to prevent collisions. Radar sensors also operate reliably in restricted visibility, e.g. in foggy or dusty conditions. Due to their ability to measure distances with high precision, the radar sensors can also be used as altimeters when other sources of information such as barometers or GPS are not available or cannot operate optimally.

Drones play an increasingly important role in the area of logistics and services. Well-known logistic companies place great hope in these compact, aerial...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Ultrafast Wireless and Chip Design at the DATE Conference in Dresden

16.03.2018 | Event News

International Tinnitus Conference of the Tinnitus Research Initiative in Regensburg

13.03.2018 | Event News

International Virtual Reality Conference “IEEE VR 2018” comes to Reutlingen, Germany

08.03.2018 | Event News

Latest News

Wandering greenhouse gas

16.03.2018 | Earth Sciences

'Frequency combs' ID chemicals within the mid-infrared spectral region

16.03.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

Biologists unravel another mystery of what makes DNA go 'loopy'

16.03.2018 | Life Sciences

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>