Linguistic and Mathematical Thinking May Go Together

A man having a hard time thinking of numbersIt’s just possible that the complexity of people’s language skills may play a role in how well they can understand mathematical concepts. At least, that’s a recent article at the Physorg.com website suggests: Words help people form mathematical concepts. The report comes from a University of Chicago study(**) done on a test group of deaf people in Ecuador who used sign language to communicate.

The basic conclusion was that if people are isolated in a community that doesn’t have concepts of large numbers in its language, those people are actually unable to think about large numbers if they are later confronted with the idea. As Susan Goldin-Meadow, one of the researchers, remarked,

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.

When those ideas are built right into the language, then people are able to think about them. So it appears that words matter very much indeed, actually helping to shape the way we are capable of thinking. People often think it’s the other way around – and I suspect there may be some reciprocal action going on – but this is one of the best arguments I’ve heard for not “dumbing down” language for children, but teaching them complex language skills as soon as possible. Within reason, of course.

This makes me wonder if it’s possible to change our ability to think about more complex things, later in life when much of our language skill has already been set. Some research suggests that children’s ability even to hear all available linguistic sounds “turns off” around age six. After that, they don’t absorb their basic language (and accent) seemingly by osmosis any more, but have to concentrate on it.

If language is so closely tied to the ability to think of complex things, can we expand our thinking ability by expanding our linguistic ability? And vice versa? I personally think we can. And in fact, I think we should, if we want to keep our civilization at a high functioning level. It’s just going to take rather more work when we do it as adults.

(** The study is described in a paper, Number Without a Language Model, published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The lead researcher was Elizabet Spaepen.)