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Developing Knowledge of Number

Developing natural number concepts: conclusion

Last class: The foundations of natural number

core representations of large, approximate numbers core representations of small exact numbers

language (number words, verbal counting, quantified expressions)

Testing two predictions of this hypothesis: 1. natural number tasks depend on core representations of large approximate numbers. 2. natural number tasks depend on language

Testing effects of language (review)

1. Amazonian adults without a system of exact number words and counting represent approximate but not exact numbers. Language or culture? 2. fMRI studies show activation of language areas during exact (but not approx) calculation on Arabic numbers 7 + 4 = 12 or 11? 7 + 4 10 or 15?

3. Some people with damage to language areas show impaired exact (but not approx) arithmetic. But is language involved in adults' calculation, or are exact calculation processes just happening near language processes?

Two more findings in normal adults:

1. Studies of the speed of mental calculation.

More studies of mental calculation, exact or approximate, presented only in Arabic notation: ex: 12 + 16 = 27 or 28? ex: 12 + 16 20 or 30? English speakers are faster to perform exact arithmetic problems with numbers whose words have fewer syllables (e.g. 12 + 16 < 11 + 17); no effect for the approximate problems. Chinese speakers (whose number words have fewer syllables) perform arithmetic faster than English speakers. Welsh speakers (whose number words have more syllables than English) perform arithmetic slower than English speakers. These effects are found only for exact, not approximate, calculation.
(Dehaene, 1997; Gathercole & Baddeley, 1990; Lemer et al., 2004; Dehaene et al., 1999)

2. Arithmetic calculation in bilingual adults

Many anecdotal reports (and some experiments) show that speakers of multiple languages perform arithmetic in the language in which they learned it. In some extreme cases, they do this even if they otherwise no longer speak the language.
Ex: Dehaene on calculations in Italian by an adult who otherwise never speaks Italian.

Importantly, this effect has only been reported in cases where adults must represent numbers exactly: making exact change vs. giving approx. bills. Do all these findings say that a specific natural language is necessary for representing exact numbers? Or is language just habitually used for this purpose?

One attempt to distinguish these possibilities: Arithmetic calculation in bilingual adults

Participants: native speakers of Russian, calculate in Russian, now studying in an English environment (U.S.) Taught new arithmetic facts in each of their languages. Facts used either familiar operations or novel operations: 49 + 63 = 112 or 102? in base 7, 13 + 25 = 31 or 41? Half the problems required exact answers, half approximate answers: 49 + 63 110 or 80? is the cube root of 25,000 30 or 50? Each problem was trained in just one language (half in English and half in Russian). Then participants were tested in both languages. Predictions: if the effects of language depend on ingrained habits, then an advantage for the language of learning number (Russian). If the effects reflect the use of language to represent new facts involving exact numbers, then an advantage for the trained language.
(Tsivkin & Spelke, 2001)

Teaching adults new arithmetic facts

Approximate Addition
(49 + 63 110)

Exact Addition
(49 + 63 = 112)

Russian training

English training

Russian training

English training Untrained language

Trained language

Learning new exact (but not approximate) arithmetic facts is specific to the language of training. Further studies: same effect for learning exact-number facts of (Tsivkin & Spelke, 2001) other kinds (e.g., dates in a history lesson).

Summary and Question

There's something about exact number that makes numerate adults activate a specific natural language, even when we have another symbol system (Arabic notation) that could represent number independently of language. Does this mean language is necessary for thinking about exact number? The people in these studies have used language to communicate about exact number all their lives. It's possible that language isn't strictly necessary, but just very useful for this purpose. (If you forced us to think about exact numbers only with Arabic symbols, or with no symbols, it's conceivable that we would succeed.)

Language and Thought

readings for next class: chapter 10, Halberda

Language learning depends on preexisting concepts


Look, a bunny! RABBIT

Today's topic: Do any of our concepts depend on language? (specific version just considered: do large, exact number concepts like 17 depend on language, or are these concepts just habitually associated with a specific language?)

First question: Do any of our concepts depend on the acquisition of variable properties of language: properties that differ from one language to another? i.e., do speakers of one language have concepts that aren't available to speakers of a different language? spatial prepositions grammatical gender Second question: Do any of our concepts depend on the acquisition of universal properties of language: a lexicon of words and a set of rules for combining them to form expressions? i.e., do speakers of any language have concepts that aren't available to people who have not fully learned any language? language and number language and space language and object kinds

Whorf's Hypothesis
amateur linguist, student of Native American languages. Struck by differences between English & other languages: (e.g.) Hopi: tense. Turkish: source of knowledge. Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941) Do these differences affect how one thinks about actions?

One possible answer: No. Differences between languages lead to differences in what we can communicate to one another but not to differences in what we can think. (see Pinker, The Language Instinct)

Whorfs Hypothesis
We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds--and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way--an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. Prediction: speakers of different languages will have different concepts: linguistic relativity. Strongest version: no concept of X without language expressions for X Weakest version: all concepts are possible without language, but a concept is less accessible if language does not reinforce it. Two cases: prepositions & gender

Prepositions: Languages vary in their obligatory marking of relations between objects across languages


Languages differ in whether and how they obligatorily categorize relations of support and containment.

Some languages differ even more and express different mechanical relationships. English: in/on Korean: tight/loose

(Choi & Bowerman)

Support, Containment, and Tightness of Fit

(question to adults: what am I doing?)


Korean distinction



English distinction

Do English-speaking adults respect the Korean distinction?

See this event?
Loose on

How similar is it to each of these events?

Tight on Loose-in


10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

Rated Similarity (10 = high)

Tight in



No effect of tight/loose on rated similarity of crosscutting on vs. in events for adult English speakers.
tight loose

tight loose

(Hespos & Spelke, 2004)

Do they make an easier Korean distinction?

See this event?
Loose in Tight in

How similar is it to each of these events?



Tight in 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0 Rated Similarity (10 = high)

ns ns

Little effect of tight/loose on rated similarity of in events for adult English speakers. But, big effect of in/on for these speakers.
Hespos & Spelke, 2004

tight loose

tight loose

Summary and Question

Adult speakers of English spontaneously categorize spatial relations in terms of support and containment, not in terms of tight vs. loose fit. Adult speakers of Korean were previously found to do the reverse (Choi & Bowerman).

How do these differences develop? Do children construct the relevant concepts over the course of learning a language, or do they have access to the concepts independently of language experience?
Studies of infants in U.S., tested on the Korean distinction.

Infants' categorization of tight- vs. loose-fitting in events

Loose-in habituation Tight-in habituation

Tight-in test

Loose-in test

Looking Time (sec)

20 15 10 5 0

20 15 Tight fit 10 5 0 Loose fit

(Hespos & Spelke, 2004)

Tight vs. loose-fitting events cross-cutting in/on more on infants

Loose-on habituation Tight-on habituation

Tight-in test

Loose-in test

Looking Time (sec)

20 15 10 5 0

20 15 Tight fit 10 5 0 0 Loose fit

In the absence of any experience with Korean, infants are sensitive (Hespos & Spelke, 2004) to the tight/loose distinction.

A parallel between semantic and phonological development

Adult speakers of English & Korean differ in their response to the conceptual distinctions in/on and tight/loose, with greater response to the distinction captured by their native language. (like English ba/da vs. Hindi da/Da)

Young infants are sensitive to the core distinctions captured by English and Korean. (like 6-month-old English infants discriminating Hindi sound contrasts)
With development, decline in response to non-native distinctions.

How serious is the decline? (NB: the English lexicon includes tight & loose)
More studies of English-speaking adults: vs.

Some languages categorize two of these events together and treat the third as different. Can you guess the categories? In/on: 100% success Simple tight/loose: 75% success. Tight/loose cross-cutting in/on: 70% success.
Adult English speakers retain considerable access to the tightloose distinction.
(Hespos & Spelke, 2004)

Tight/loose and in/on: Summary

1. Infants make the conceptual distinctions required by both languages. 2. Adults use more readily the distinction thats obligatory in their native language, but they retain considerable access to the other, optional distinction. Whorfs strong claim is false in this case; the weak claim is correct.

Languages vary in their assignment of gender to nouns: Chinese: no gender (even for people & animals) English: gender for people & animals, not for objects. Spanish: gender for all nouns. When languages assign gender to all nouns, the assignment often is arbitrary. Masculine Feminine German moon sun toaster bridge Spanish sun moon bridge toaster
Gender affects forms of articles, adjectives, and some verbs: Ex: French-- Le vieux chat est mort; la vielle vache est morte. Do these forms influence speakers conceptions of the things they talk about?

Participants: Stanford & MIT students Native speakers of German or Spanish

Exp 1: learn English proper names for each of 24 objects (half masculine in Spanish & feminine in German; half the reverse).

This is Patrick/Patricia

Conditions: Congruent Spanish: toaster = Patricia, bridge = George Congruent German: toaster = Patrick, bridge = Georgia (NB: congruent Spanish = incongruent German)


Findings: Better memory for the pairs in which the gender of the name in English matched the gender of the common noun in subjects native language. The gender assigned by their native language colors speakers representations of objects, even when they are speaking English. Will native-language gender affect subjects English-language descriptions of objects?

Exp 2: write down the first three adjectives in English that come to mind when you see pictures of each of these 24 objects. Example findings: German speakers (key = masculine): hard, heavy, jagged, metal, serrated, useful Spanish speakers (key = feminine): golden, intricate, little, lovely, shiny, tiny
German speakers (bridge =feminine): beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty, slender Spanish (bridge = masculine): big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, towering The gender assigned by their native language affects speakers descriptions of objects, even when they are speaking English.

Are these effects of grammatical gender positive or negative (relative to a language without gender)?
More on the proper name learning study: Performance of native speakers of Spanish & German compared to that of native speakers of English, for the same names & objects: Congruent-Spanish Spanish good German bad English good Congruent-German bad good good


Experience with a language in which toasters are masculine interferes with the ability to conceive of toasters as feminine. In the absence of such experience, adults can conceive of toasters either as masculine or as feminine.

Gender: Summary
Native speakers of a language with grammatical gender show influences of that language on representations of the masculinity/femininity of inanimate objects. But: The nature of this effect is negative, relative to the object representations of speakers of a language without grammatical gender. --in English, a bridge can be either Patrick or Patricia. --in German, a bridge can only be Patricia. Like tight/loose and like speech perception, humans can form gendered representations of objects without language. Acquisition of a gendered language pares down these representations. More evidence against Whorfs strong claims and favoring the weak claim.

Language and Thought: Interim Summary

Do speakers of different languages have different concepts? In two cases (object mechanics, object gender), language affects the accessibility and salience of concepts.

Beneath the patterns of variation, strong universals in human conceptual capacities, in these cases and others (mind, space, number). In general, strong universals in human capacities of all sorts, despite apparently large differences in the ways people in different cultures live, behave, and talk: universal systems of core knowledge universal language faculty

A different possible relation of language to thought

for Whorf: languages force us to categorize experiences into concepts. now: languages allow us to combine concepts productively. All human languages are productively combinatorial: once children learn the words and rules of a language, they can form infinitely many new expressions. These words and rules might allow children and adults to form new concepts by productive combination of old ones. linguistic dependence without linguistic relativity: people who learn any language will gain this ability.

How to test for this relation?

Not by comparing speakers of different languages, because all natural languages are productively combinatorial. Earlier tests in the case of number: studying language activation during performance of a given cognitive task (there, exact calculation). These tests can tell us when language is habitually used in cognitive performance. They don't clearly tell us that language is necessary. Two alternatives: 1. We may need symbols to perform the task (e.g., as memory aids) and language just may be our best, most practiced symbol system. 2. We may be able to perform the task with no symbols at all, and language may just let us perform it faster/better.

Language and productive combinations

One method: studies of adults lacking a full, productively combinatorial language. Three case studies: natural number: representing large, exact numbers. navigation: combining layout geometry with landmarks. natural kinds: using kind concepts to individuate objects.

Testing effects of language on number: Nicaraguan homesigners

Four profoundly & congenitally deaf adults, living in a hearing community, with no exposure to any spoken or sign language. They communicate by homesign: they have developed gestures denoting objects and actions, and they use gestures to convey number. They live in a numerate culture, with money, calendars, etc. Because they have no formal schooling, compared to hearing adults in Nicaragua with no formal schooling. NB: a way to separate effects of language from effects of culture.
(Spaepen, Coppola, Spelke, Carey & Goldin-Meadow, 2011)

Testing effects of language : Homesign

Nicaraguan homesigners use gestures with raised fingers to talk about number, and they understand when others use these gestures to talk to them. They use these gestures together with gestures for object kinds to describe arrays of objects. four cup task: "what's on this card?"

(Spaepen, Coppola, Spelke, Carey & Goldin-Meadow, 2011)

Testing effects of language : Homesign

two versions of the card task: time-limited and untimed. different objects, numbers 1-20.

same task given to hearing people with no schooling from the same villages.
(Spaepen, Coppola, Spelke, Carey & Goldin-Meadow, 2011)

Number language in Nicaraguan homesigners

Homesigners gestures for number are approximate, not exact. Homesigners gestures for number are not summary symbols: Four raised fingers are 4 symbols for 1, not 1 symbol for 4. Homesigners gestures for number are not ordered: they have great difficulty ordering gestures and dont use them successively in a count list. These homesigners have very limited numerical language.
(Spaepen, Coppola, Spelke, Carey & Goldin-Meadow, 2011)

Number concepts in Nicaraguan homesigners

When homesigners are asked to enumerate objects or events in nonverbal tasks, they do so approximately and without the use of gestures. Homesigners use money and recognize specific bills, but their representation of monetary values also is approximate.

Cultural pressure is not sufficient for the development of full natural number concepts, which depend on one or more aspects of language that fail to emerge spontaneously in homesign.
(Spaepen, Coppola, Spelke, Carey & Goldin-Meadow, 2011)