Humans have an in-built ability to do mathematics even if they do not have the language to express it, a research team has suggested.
A study in Australian Aboriginal children, whose languages lack number words, found they did just as well as English-speaking children in numeracy.
The findings contradicts other research which found having “counting words” was the key to developing number skills.
The study appears in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences.
British and Australian researchers assessed 45 indigenous Australian children aged between four and seven years.
They compared those who lived in remote areas and only spoke Warlpiri or Anindilyakawa – two Aboriginal languages with very few number words – with those who lived in Melbourne and spoke English.
The children were asked to “copy” the number of objects the researchers placed on a mat.
They then had to repeat the exercise when objects were added under a cover – so they could not see how many objects were now there but had to work it out.
In the most complex task, the children had to match the right number of counters to the number of times the researcher banged two sticks together.
There was no difference in numerical ability between the children who spoke languages without number words and the English-speaking children.
Study leader Professor Brian Butterworth, from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, said two studies in tribes in the Amazon had concluded that words were necessary for exact number tasks but this research showed otherwise.
“We’re born with the ability to see the world numerically just as we’re born to see the world in colour.”
He added that some people may be born without this innate numeracy mechanism – for example those with dyscalculia who struggle to develop number skills.
“This may help explain why children in numerate cultures with developmental dyscalculia find it so difficult to learn arithmetic.
“Although they have plenty of formal and informal opportunities to learn to count with words and do arithmetic, the innate mechanism on which skilled arithmetic is based may have developed atypically,” he said.
Professor Butterworth is currently conducting a large twin study to shed light on the differences in brains of people with dyscalculia.