I Am Number Four

Linguists have often wondered, "Is our understanding of numbers innate or cultural?" New research provides stronger evidence than ever that humans must be taught to count, and that without language, math doesn’t exist.

Previous studies showed that Amazon tribal people who lacked words for numbers beyond “one, two, and many” were unable to understand precise quantities. But it was never clear whether this inability simply resulted from their not needing numbers to negotiate the world they inhabited.

The new study meets that objection by focusing on deaf Nicaraguans, called “homesigners,” who live and work in a society that runs on exact values yet communicate with a system of gestures that doesn’t include signs for numbers. The study found that the homesigners couldn’t accurately count above four. Shown a picture of 10 sheep, for instance, they seemed to estimate the amount—often holding up nine fingers.

By comparison, deaf users of American Sign Language, which does have words for numbers, and Spanish-speaking Nicaraguans who weren’t deaf aced the same tests—proving that the missing link for counting was not hearing or culture but language.

The study proves that the ability to count “isn’t something you just get for free because you’re human,” author and University of Chicago psychologist Elizabet Spaepen tells Wired.com. “If you’re not getting it in your language, you’re not going to just come up with it on your own.”
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