According to mainstream linguistics and experimental psychology humans are born with an innate understanding of numbers. Show a nine month old baby two or three objects and it will know there is a difference between the two sets of things.
However, it is also widely understood that some cultures are better with numbers than others. The Chinese for example are often cited as having extremely high levels of maths attainment and their children are some of the best in the world when it comes to maths. The Piraha in the Brazilian Amazon however, go against most accepted knowledge about human culture and lack even the words for one and two. Instead they have hói meaning ‘a small size or amount’ which can mean anything from 1 -3, hoí ‘a somewhat larger amount’ which can be anything from 2 – 7 and than the term baagoi which is for larger also unspecified quantities. Although children can be taught to count to ten in Portuguese their parents have completely lost the capacity to learn to count to ten by the time they reach adulthood in large part because their language just doesn’t allow for that comprehension.
Whilst we’re all born with the same capacity to learn and use numbers, it is clear that our culture and our language shapes how well we do this as we grow up. So, if we want out children to be great at maths can we learn from the Chinese? In Chinese the words for eleven and twelve are ten-one and ten-two (and so on), as a consequence it has been claimed by many researchers that this linguistic advantage explains their prodigious numeracy. However, it’s not just their language. The Chinese love numbers and numerology plays a significant role in religious beliefs and rituals. Parents also greatly value their children’s maths achievements. So, if we want our children to be great at maths perhaps the one thing we can do is to learn to love maths ourselves.
These are the main articles I used for this post. The New Yorker article is a fun read as is Daniel Everett’s Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes, which is a great non academic anthropology book about the truly fascinating Piraha.
Linguistic and Cultural Variables in the Psychology of Numeracy