Fewer numbers without language

Those who see themselves more as ‘number people’ than ‘word people’ 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 doesn’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. ‘They’re not wildly off,’ says Elizabet Spaepen, the lead researcher. ‘They can approximate quantities, but they don’t have a way of getting to the exact number.’

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.   ‘What language does is give you a means of linking up our small, exact number abilities with our large approximate number abilities,’ says Daniel Casasanto, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands.

And we wouldn’t be where we are today without this vital link.   ‘It has been the tool that gave rise to the society we live in,’ Casasanto says. ‘The skyscrapers we work in and the computers that we’re talking on right now — all of these things are possible because of exact large number and humans’ ability to manipulate them.’

Something to consider next time you’re managing your portfolio, balancing your chequebook, or sharing out M&Ms in the office.

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