Posted by Gabriela Sanchez
When a child is asked to count a handful of pebbles, he or she would; however, when the smartest member of the Amazonian tribe, Pirahã is asked to count that handful of pebbles, he or she would just give a blank stare. It is because the Pirahã tribe lacks words for "precise quantities or the action of counting"; however, they quantify objects approximately with words that are similar to our language such as "few" and "many".
Peter Gordon, PhD, a psychology professor at Columbia University Teachers College, who studies the tribe, gave seven Pirahã tribe members nine objects, and asked them to make a group out of an equal number of nuts. None of the members used exactly nine nuts. Gordon commented on his finding, stating, "The finding suggests that language, especially number-words, plays a critical role in people's comprehension of quantity". In other words, the members of the tribe were unable to to comprehend the quantity that was being asked of them because they do not have a number-word.
Cross-cultural research supports the idea that, although distinct cultures develop unique counting words, they still share similar properties. For instance, they still appoint a " ... unique word for each counted object, and using the last number-word to stand for the entire group of objects". In other words, despite being different, cultures still share a common core, the ability to use natural numbers.
It is argued that the Pirahã tribe never needed to know how to count because they never traded with the outside world. They were able to communicate with themselves by a single gesture. For instance, their gesture would indicated, "These nuts for that chicken". Furthermore, Gordon stated the Pirahã tribe never needed to count because their trading system was not as elaborate as other cultures, "... especially those that use currency [and] require the ability to label specific quantities".
When Gordon conducted another experiment on the Pirahã tribe, where he placed one to ten nuts on the table, and asked the each participant to place an equal number of batteries on the table as well, the participants got a hundred percent accuracy when matching sets of up to three batteries. However, the accuracy rate dropped to about 75 percent at four batteries. By the time the participants got to nine batteries, none of them got the answer correct.
Finally, despite not having a number-words, one can still make approximate comparisons. Gelman, who researches how children develop number concepts, believes that people are born with an internal representation system for numbers that operates regardless of language. Hours-old babies, and animals such as chimpanzees and pigeons, do recognize change in arrays. Gordon, on the other hand, states, "the lack of number-words seems to preclude the ability to entertain concepts of exact number. There may be other ways to learn and represent exact numbers, but in the normal course of human learning, language is the route we take". In other words, yes, we are able to learn and represent exact numbers; however, the most common and popular course is language.
The article is quite interesting to me because the basics of math is counting. It is the first thing that one is taught when it comes to math. The article was written in 2005, so that means this news is still fairly new. We are not talking about a tribe back centuries ago. This is just eight years ago. It is understandable that because they never trade with other tribes, just among each other, that that is why they never needed to learn to count; however, it is astonishing that they never encountered a situation where they needed exact quantities. Now, let it be clear that they do not appreciate exact quantities because they lack the language for it, or as it called in the article, "number-words". It's highly intriguing that old civilizations such as the Egyptians did amazing work because they had a numbering system, and this tribe is in the 21st century and lacks a numbering system.
Also, counting is helpful when it comes to food. Take rations for example, if the tribe is running low on food, they would need to know how many people will eat, thus how many of each of the ingredients they need to have. They cannot just make a large amount of food and have it go to waste. At the same time, I also thought about how when cooking, my mother doesn't use a measuring cup or spoon. My mom just knows, especially after so many years of doing so, that maybe that is how the tribe works.
Furthermore, knowing how to count saves time. For instance, if one has walk miles to pick fruit for the tribe, then it's important to know how to count. One could count how many hungry people there are and then just pick that amount. Not knowing how to count could mean not bringing enough fruit for everyone and having to make that extra trip or two.
In addition, I feel like they don't value quantity, but quality. For example, the article read, "Because they don't trade with the outside world, they can simply indicate by gesture that they would like to exchange, for example, this basket of nuts for that chicken". That being said, they don't care that it is a numerous amount of nuts and one chicken. They believe that the chicken is worth numerous amount of nuts. If they had currency like we do, they would give value to money and not to what they are trading.
Peter Gordon, PhD, a psychology professor at Columbia University Teachers College, who studies the tribe, stated that tribes word "'hói,' might be more accurately translated as 'about one'". I like precision and exactness. I dislike when I go to the store for my mother, and she tells me that she needs about five or six things of something. I like it better when she tells me she needs five things, not "about" so many things. Furthermore, it's astonishing that other cultures have their own unique term for a number, but this tribe does not have the ability to use natural numbers.
Finally, it's intriguing that "language, especially number-words, plays a critical role in people's comprehension of quantity". Not many people think to associate numbers with words. Letters, yes, but not words. Many people think that math is just numbers, but after reading this article, we learn that without words, we cannot comprehend the basics of math: quantity, counting.