Is Counting Innate in Australia?

A new study by Brian Butterworth and others finds that indigenous Australian children can count even if the language does not gramatically have the same range of number words as other languages. This is an interesting counterclaim to the notion that members of the Amazonian Pirahã tribe not only lack number words, but can’t learn to count. The experiment in Australia was conducted by asking children to put up the number of objects matching the number of beats on two drumsticks.

This experiment was interesting in that younger children were used. The use of children is interesting because, as far as I know, the Pirahã subjects were adult men. But since Pirahã children who learn Portuguese also learn to count in Portuguese, there may be a critical period element of some sort (or not). In any case it would be interesting to replicate both experiments in the other region (assuming the Pirahã parents would agree to it of course).

The other thing that would be interesting to track is how the Australian language number systems were structured. As far as I can tell, the Pirahã “number” words aren’t numbers at all, but estimates of small vs. large quantities. The Australian number system may be more limited, but some words like “one, two, three” may refer to exact quantities which is a key conceptual difference.

The study is in the Aug 18 issue of PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United Stated of America). This article did not seem to be available yet.

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