Posted by Catie Holdridge
Those who see themselves more as â€˜number peopleâ€™ than â€˜word peopleâ€™ might be surprised to learn that their understanding of numbers is actually dependent on language.
New research has found that, without language, it is impossible to properly comprehend larger quantities. The findings come from a study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, of a deaf community in Nicaragua. With no knowledge of Spanish or formal sign language, these people have created their own signing system; but it doesnâ€™t include vocabulary for numbers. This is despite the fact that they live and work in a numerate society.
During the experiments, members of the group often lost track of specific numbers above three. In one test, participants were asked to respond to taps on the hand by tapping the same amount back, but they tended to be out by one or two. â€˜Theyâ€™re not wildly off,â€™ says Elizabet Spaepen, the lead researcher. â€˜They can approximate quantities, but they donâ€™t have a way of getting to the exact number.â€™
Although humans have been shown to have an innate numerical understanding, we are only naturally adept at understanding small numbers and estimating large ones. We need words in order to bridge that gap.Â â€˜What language does is give you a means of linking up our small, exact number abilities with our large approximate number abilities,â€™ says Daniel Casasanto, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands.
And we wouldnâ€™t be where we are today without this vital link.Â â€˜It has been the tool that gave rise to the society we live in,â€™ Casasanto says. â€˜The skyscrapers we work in and the computers that we’re talking on right now â€” all of these things are possible because of exact large number and humans’ ability to manipulate them.â€™
Something to consider next time youâ€™re managing your portfolio, balancing your chequebook, or sharing out M&Ms in the office.
Posted by Catie Holdridge
Last Thursday marked the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin: an event that did not go uncelebrated at Emphasis HQ. And even as we hung the streamers and tied up the balloons we were silently thanking the birthday boy for explaining the opposable thumbs that allowed us to do it.
I mean, of course, his theory of natural selection: that particular cause of evolution that pits genes in competition with each other so that organisms can win the reproduction war, becoming increasingly sophisticated in tiny increments along the way.
The roots and evolution of language have proved trickier to reconcile with Darwinâ€™s magnum opus.Â The fact that humans happily chat away from an early age while chimps â€“ our closest relatives in the animal kingdom â€“ stay stoically silent has led to doubts on the subject.
Possible suggestions for our capacity for communication are as varied as Divine bestowment or a coincidental by-product of some other adaptation process. (For example, bones are white not for aesthetic reasons but because they are strengthened with calcium. Which is white.)
But thereâ€™s hope yet for hard-line Darwinist linguists. Steven Pinker suggests humans have a â€˜language instinctâ€™, * which has been gradually honed for 200,000 years: this explains why children begin to pick up pretty complex grammar before they even go to school; why every community and tribe ever discovered has a stable language with regulated grammar and syntax; and why even people deaf from birth include these features in their sign language. And we canâ€™t possibly learn it by rote since it is virtually limitless: we can use it to form endlessly innovative combinations of words.
Thereâ€™s no reason to expect chimps to have this innate ability (tea adverts aside) because we are not descended from them directly: we share a common (extinct) ancestor. Developing our brains in this unique way is no odder, Pinker points out, than an elephant developing a trunk.
In business, out-performing your rivals is still vital for survival. So weâ€™re here to help your writing evolve: we like to think of ourselves as the winning gene. And â€“ hopefully â€“ that Darwin would be proud.
* For more on this see Steven Pinker The Language Instinct (Penguin Books Ltd 1994)