A new study made by a team of international scientists found that English-speaking toddlers learn the concept of number “one” faster than than Japanese- and Chinese-speaking kids, while Arabic and Slovenian speaking kids learned to grasp the idea of number “two” faster than their English-speaking counterparts. The study provides a new set of evidence supporting the already entrenched idea that language affects the way we grasp numbers at an early age.
Some languages have completely different clauses and noun agreements, which apparently influence cognition. American linguist Benjamin Whorff famously argued that Eskimos have 200 words for snow, indicating that they think differently about the substance than do, say, English-speakers. Other scientists have disputed that the word count is that high, or that it really reflects different ways of thinking. Take music for instance; Japanese speakers sense rhythm differently than westerners, something that’s been attributed to both culture and language.
Examples could go on, but it’s interesting to see how children who are just beginning to speak differ function of their mother tongue. The researchers tested dozens of two- to four-year-old English, Arabic and Slovenian speakers , asking them to perform various tasks like “Put two buttons in the box” and name “What’s on this card?”.
Indifferent of age, far more Arabic and Slovenian speakers knew the concept of “two” than English speakers. The difference is quite staggering: 42 percent of the Slovenian two-year-olds knew “two,” while only four percent of English two-year-olds did. Also, Slovenian and Arab toddlers were more likely to grasp the number two than Russian, Japanese and Chinese toddlers. Why? In Slovenian, for instance, speakers have distinct known for singular nouns, nouns in twos, and nouns in numbers three or greater. In Slovenian one button is a gumb, two buttons are gumba, and three or more buttons are gumbi. This noun agreement, different from English where there’s only singular and plural, likely helps the toddlers understand numbers better.
But the lead doesn’t last much. As they get older, English speaking kids actually outperform Slovenians in number higher up. What the study shows, ultimately, is that language plays an important role in acquiring low numbers.
Enjoyed this article? Join 40,000+ subscribers to the ZME Science newsletter. Subscribe now!