Tag Archives: Sign language

How words help make sense of numbers

8 Feb
Sign language F

Image via Wikipedia

I came across this great article on wired.com today: Words make sense of numbers.  It discusses the fascinating connection between our understanding of numbers and the words we give to numbers.

What I think the article is saying is that without words for numbers (one, two, three etc.), we struggle to grasp the concept of larger numbers.  Some remote tribes in the Amazon only have words for ‘one’, ‘two’ and ‘many’ – and they struggle to distinguish between, say, five and six fish.

The claim that words for numbers help us understand the concept of numbers is backed up by the example of a deaf school in Nicaragau that was founded in the 1970s.  There was no official sign language in the country – and when the pupils came together at the school, they ended up developing their own sign language.  The later study suggests that, as they didn’t have many number words in this language, they struggled to distinguish between the number of frogs in a fairy tale.

So while mathematics may be considered a universal absolute, it’s satisfying for me as a linguist to learn that language is absolutely necessary for truly grasping the concept of number.