Counting words and a principles-after account of the development of number concepts

Brian Butterworth and Robert Reeve

in Access to Language and Cognitive Development

Published in print December 2011 | ISBN: 9780199592722
Published online January 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780191731488 | DOI:
Counting words and a principles-after account of the development of number concepts

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This chapter addresses the lengthy debate between those who claim that children acquire the principles necessary to count by actively using verbal routines and theories that propose tacit knowledge of those principles is acquired independently from verbal experiences with counting words. It investigates whether domain-specific lexical differences across different languages affect children's mental processes and performance in a nonverbal addition task. Based on work carried out, this chapter compares data from children who are raised speaking only Warlpiri or Anindilyakwa — languages that have very limited number vocabularies — with data from children who were raised speaking English. Speakers of Warlpiri and Anindilyakwa, aged between four and seven years old, were tested at two remote sites in the Northern Territory of Australia. These children used spatial strategies extensively, and were significantly more accurate when they did so than English-speaking children who used spatial strategies very infrequently, but relied on an enumeration strategy supported by counting words to do the addition task. The main spatial strategy exploited the known visual memory strengths of Aboriginals, and involved matching the spatial pattern of the augend set and the addend. These findings suggest that counting words, far from being necessary for exact arithmetic, offer one strategy among others. They also suggest that spatial models for number do not need to be one-dimensional vectors, as in a mental number line, but can be at least two-dimensional.

Keywords: children's development; lexical difference; Warlpiri; Anindilyakwa; spatial strategies; visual memory

Chapter.  6774 words. 

Subjects: Developmental Psychology

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