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Humans may have innate maths skills

Published: 11:24PM Tuesday August 19, 2008 Source: AAP

A study of Aboriginal children who are able to count without using words has sparked a new theory about humans having a natural ability when it comes to numbers.
  
A study of 45 indigenous children from two Aboriginal communities lacking in words and gestures for numbers found the youngsters could count just as well as their English-speaking peers.
  
Academics from the University College London (UCL) and University of Melbourne believe their findings demonstrate that humans have an "innate mechanism" for counting.
  
Study author Professor Brian Butterworth, of UCL's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, said the findings contrasted with theories suggesting children needed to know counting words to develop concepts of numbers.
  
"Evidence from children in numerate societies, but also from Amazonian adults whose language does not contain counting words, has been used to support this claim," he said.
  
"However, our study of Aboriginal children suggests that we have an innate system for recognising and representing numerosities, the number of objects in a set, and that the lack of a number vocabulary should not prevent us from doing numerical tasks that do not require number words."
  
The children aged four to seven, who took part in the study were from one community on the edge of the Tanami Desert, about 400km north-west of Alice Springs, and another on Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Their results were compared with a group of English-speaking indigenous children in Melbourne.
  
While both Aboriginal communities had words for one, two, few and many, the researchers were unable to ask questions asking them to identify how many objects they were presented with.
 
Instead, the indigenous children were asked to put out counters matching the number of sounds made by banging two sticks together.
  
Professor Butterworth said the Aboriginal children from the two remote communities performed "as well or better" than the English-speaking children in a range of tasks.
  
"Thus, basic numerical concepts do indeed appear to depend on an innate mechanism," he said.
  
"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."
  
The findings have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.