University of Chicago Big Ideas Generator


Big Question: How language transforms mind and world

University of Chicago Big Questions

Principal Investigators: Daniel Casasanto, Psychology ; Susan Goldin-Meadow, Psychology

Funding Type: Seed

Focus Area: Cognition

Big Idea: Does language shape the way people think? For nearly a century, the consensus among linguists, philosophers, and psychologists has been: No. Although the world’s 7000 languages differ in myriad ways, the concepts filling their speakers’ minds are the same, universally. In this project we will challenge the dogma of the Universal Mind by investigating a conceptual domain in which language may have transformative effects: numerical cognition. People acquire number concepts early in their lives — but only, we hypothesize, if they are exposed to counting words. To test this hypothesis, we will investigate the counting abilities of cognitively normal adults who, due to early deafness, were not exposed to any counting words in language during childhood. Previous studies suggest these adults may be unable to conceptualize exact numbers greater than three.  The first phase of our study will determine whether these people are profoundly innumerate, as they appear, or whether earlier tests have missed hidden numerical competencies. According to our hypothesis, in the absence of number words these adults will be unable to reason about numbers in ways that are child’s play for most hearing (or sign-language using) kindergarteners: we predict they will be unable to distinguish four apples from five apples, indicating that basic numerical competence is not a human universal. 

The second phase will determine whether language plays a causal role in creating the kind of exact number concepts we can use, like four, fourteen, and four-million. We will attempt to endow innumerate deaf adults with numeracy. Training will include counting words in the “language” treatment group, but not in the “no-language” control group. If only the “language” group acquires number concepts, this will demonstrate a critical role for language in the development of a new cognitive capacity: one that not only changes our minds, but has also transformed the world. Our technological society depends on exact number, which may in turn depend on counting words. If so, this will be the most important influence of language on cognition ever discovered. Alternatively, if both groups become numerate, this will prove that language is not needed for number acquisition, falsifying a bold claim about the role of language in conceptual development — but also showing for the first time how innumerate adults can be trained to become numerate. This study aims to explain how minds can differ almost unimaginably across groups of people, and to identify the experiential factors that contribute to cognitive diversity, enabling humans to exceed their innate cognitive endowment.

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