Without language, no math (some research, also gender-related)

Here are some studies on language and math.

Imagine a world in which you didn’t have words for numbers, would you still be able to do math? The answer is probably no. This we can assume because of a recent study of the Piraha tribe, a community of nomads, close to the Amazon. They only have 3 words to describe an amount. Hòi means “small amount or size”, hoì, means “some biggeramount,” and baàgiso describes “reason to come together or many.” This tribe is completely ‘anumeric’, one of the few peoples in our world. And what did the researchers notice: the members of this tribe do have trouble with math. (check also here)

Abstract of the research (free):

Recent research has suggested that the Pirahã, an Amazonian tribe with a number-less language, are able to match quantities > 3 if the matching task does not require recall or spatial transposition. This finding contravenes previous work among the Pirahã. In this study, we re-tested the Pirahãs’ performance in the crucial one-to-one matching task utilized in the two previous studies on their numerical cognition, as well as in control tasks requiring recall and mental transposition. We also conducted a novel quantity recognition task. Speakers were unable to consistently match quantities > 3, even when no recall or transposition was involved. We provide a plausible motivation for the disparate results previously obtained among the Pirahã. Our findings are consistent with the suggestion that the exact recognition of quantities > 3 requires number terminology.

Suddenly one has to think about the differences between boys and girls. We often think boys are better in math and girls are better in languages. But this is wrong. Girls who are better in languages, are often also better in math.(check also here)

Abstract of the research paper:

Studies have shown that female children, on average, consistently outperform male children in arithmetic. In the research reported here, 1,556 pupils (8 to 11 years of age) from urban and rural regions in the greater Beijing area completed 10 cognitive tasks. Results showed that girls outperformed boys in arithmetic tasks (i.e., simple subtraction, complex multiplication), as well as in numerosity-comparison, number-comparison, number-series-completion, choice reaction time, and word-rhyming tasks. Boys outperformed girls in a mental rotation task. Controlling for scores on the word-rhyming task eliminated gender differences in arithmetic, whereas controlling for scores on numerical-processing tasks (number comparison, numerosity estimation, numerosity comparison, and number-series completion) and general cognitive tasks (choice reaction time, Raven’s Progressive Matrices, and mental rotation) did not. These results suggest that girls’ advantage in arithmetic is likely due to their advantage in language processing.

Luckily there is also some good news to tell about our boys. We learn from recent British research that boys are getting closer to girls in reading! The most important insights of this research:

  • The difficulty level of books read by boys in the report is no longer generally lower than girls’.
  • There are signs of difficulty of books rising since last year.
  • This year there is evidence that a high number of quizzes taken and passed is sustained into the first two Years of secondary school (Year 7 and 8, except in Scotland), a change from previous years when a decline set in at this stage. While the difficulty of books read declines after Year 9, this is more positive than previous reports, in which the difficulty declined after Year 6. However, it is still the case that if the older readers challenged themselves more, better reading outcomes could be anticipated.

4 thoughts on “Without language, no math (some research, also gender-related)

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