If I remember anything from my days of learning foreign languages, it’s how to count. Not very impressive I grant you, but I can still knock out an “un, duex, trois” or an “ein, zwei, drei” when required. Counting is such a basic and universal skill that it is hard to imagine life without it, but certain aboriginal communities do not have words or gestures to represent numbers. A study by University College London and the University of Melbourne of children from two such communities has found the lack of words is not a hindrance to counting.
The study looked at children aged four to seven from two aboriginal groups, one speaking a langage called Warlpiri whilst the other used Anindilyakwa. Both have words for one, two, few and many, and Anindilyakwa uses numbers up to 20 in rituals but children are not taught these. As a control group the team also worked with an English-speaking indigenous community.
Professor Brian Butterworth of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience was lead author of the study, and details the difficulty in designing questions that the children could answer:
“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.
It appears being able to count is an innate skill. This could explain why children with dyscalculia, a form of dyslexia relating to mathematics, find arithmetic so difficult to learn. Even with our counting system of “one, two, three” to aid them, a lack of this innate skill causes sufferers to struggle. Professor Butterworth is conducting another study in order to find the differences in brains of people with the disorder.