Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Language and Numbers Study

A study involving the deaf shows langugage to play a critical role in our ability to understand numbers. A team of researchers, lead by the University of Chicago, found deaf people in Nicaragua, who had not learned formal sign language but used homesigns, did not have a complete understanding of numbers greater than three. The deaf who learn a sign language grasped the concept of large numbers because they learned a counting routine early in childhood, just as that learned by children who use spoken languages. There is something about the understanding of relationships that lie beneath the words whether it be spoken language or sign.
The homesigners failed to grasp the succession of numbers, despite knowing, for instance, that eight fingers are more than seven fingers. The researchers determined that living in a culture that used numbers was not enough to gain an understanding of what the numbers represented. That's why the homesigners used the shape and color of money to dertermine which denominations were more valuable than others, rather than from knowing the acutual amounts the coins or paper currencies represented. You can read more about the study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper is titled Number Without a Language Model.