Starting in school, kids often begin to see themselves as “math people” or “English people” based on aptitudes. But math and language skills are actually more closely related than you’d think. In fact, a new study shows that language skills are a prerequisite for being able to understand numbers.
The study looked at a group of “homesigners” in Argentina. These people were born deaf, but were never taught a structured sign language system like American Sign Language or British Sign Language. Instead, they get by with a system of signs of their own devising. Despite this limitation, the homesigners in the Argentinian study were fairly independent, able to hold jobs and use money.
It’s somewhat surprising, then, that researchers discovered that the homesigners had difficulty accurately perceiving numbers larger than three. For example, when shown cards picturing different numbers of items, they could only accurately count up to three. When shown a row of checkers and asked to replicate it, they were only able to do so if the row of checkers contained 3 checkers or fewer.
Susan Goldin-Meadow, a researcher who worked on the study, explained to TGDaily.com that language gives people a structure that helps them better understand the relationships between numbers:
“It’s not just the vocabulary words that matter, but understanding the relationships that underlie the words – the fact that ‘eight’ is one more than ‘seven’ and one less than ‘nine’. Without having a set of number words to guide them, deaf homesigners in the study failed to understand that numbers build on each other in value.”
Daniel Casasanto of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics further explained to NPR that humans seem to have the innate ability to approximate numbers, to tell the difference between a small amount of something and a large amount. Casasanto said that language is the base that makes it possible for our minds to deal with large numbers with precision (well, some of us, anyway!):
“What language does is give you a means of linking up our small, exact number abilities with our large, approximate number abilities. It has been the tool that gave rise to the society we live in. 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 numbers and humans’ ability to manipulate them.”