Language linked to numeracy

Published 17th March 2011
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According to a recent New Scientist article, Elizabet Spaepen, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, and her colleagues have recently published a new study which highlights the link between languages and numeracy. The study, named Number without a language model, investigates the long-held suspicion that language can impact on how people understand numbers.

Some languages, such as Pirahã, lack words for numbers completely, and research has suggested that this has a direct effect on their ability to comprehend and use numbers. However, as in the case of the Pirahã, it was not possible to conclusively prove whether these difficulties were caused by their language model, or by a lack of importance placed on numeracy by their society. In fact, the Pirahã language is famed for lacking many of the basic concepts other societies consider fundamental. But that’s another blog for another day…

So, the study had to make sure the only variable factor was the language used, and so they chose Nicaraguan Sign Language, because this community exists within a numerate society, but does not have words for numbers. Simple numerical tasks were given to the subjects, and the results then compared with those of Spanish-speaking Nicaraguans and American Sign Language users. It was found that the Nicaraguan Sign Language users performed worse than the other test subjects, and that their ability to accurately count larger numbers was reduced. The study did not prove which aspect of language was responsible for this difference.

This study not only sheds light on a very interesting topic, but also shows just how important language is. We could not do many of the things we take for granted without language!Según un reciente artículo publicado en la revista New Scientist, Elizabet Spaepen, psicóloga de la Universidad de Chicago, y sus colegas han publicado un nuevo estudio que establece la existencia de un vínculo entre las lenguas y las matemáticas. El estudio, llamado Number without a language model (cuya traducción sería Número sin un modelo de lengua), investiga la sospecha existente desde hace ya algún tiempo de que el lenguaje podría influir en la forma en la que las personas entienden los números.

Algunos idiomas, como el Pirahã, carecen por completo de palabras para designar números, y el estudio sugiere que este hecho afecta directamente a su capacidad de comprender y emplear los números. Sin embargo, en el caso de los Pirahã, no consiguieron probar de forma concluyente si estas dificultades eran causadas por su modelo de lengua, o bien por la falta de importancia que el cálculo tiene en su sociedad. De hecho, la lengua Pirahã es famosa por carecer de muchos de los conceptos básicos que otras sociedades consideran como fundamentales. Pero eso es otro tema para otro blog …

Así, el estudio tuvo que asegurarse de que la lengua utilizada constituía la única variable, por lo que optó por el Lenguaje de Signos Nicaragüense, porque esta comunidad existe dentro de una sociedad que tiene conocimientos de aritmética, pero que no dispone de palabras para denominar los números.

Los sujetos fueron provistos de varias tareas numéricas sencillas. Los resultados obtenidos se compararon con los de los nicaragüenses hispanohablantes y los usuarios de la Sistema de Lengua de Signos Americano. Encontraron entonces que aquellos usuarios del Sistema de Signos Nicaragüense se desenvolvieron peor que los otros sujetos del estudio, y que su capacidad para contar con precisión números largos era más reducida. El estudio demostró que los motivos culpables de esta diferencia estaban relacionados con aspectos de la lengua empleada.

Este estudio no sólo saca a la palestra un tema muy interesante, sino que también prueba la importancia que adquieren los idiomas. ¡Sin ellos no seríamos capaces de hacer muchas de las cosas que normalmente damos por sentado!

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