is knowledge innate – do we show number abilities before we can verbalise them and how does language help develop our number concepts

Many researchers such as Piaget argue that knowledge is in fact learnt, our knowledge is nurtured and therefore develops through experience of the environment. However, if this was the case it would suggest that infants were born with basic abilities that would need to be shaped. It is demonstrated through many experiments that infants are able to show abilities at just a few days old showing that they have been born with this inbuilt knowledge ready to integrate experience into. These experiments are tested in infants (0-18 months) so they are in the pre-verbal stage, it is important to understand how language can then develop these abilities and whether this method is purely innate or whether it holds a nurture standing. 
First of all, from birth infants are able to demonstrate abilities that would be assumed to be developed far later – but is this assumption only due to the fact that it is harder to test these abilities before language rather than them actually being present. These include the ability of number – we start with quite a controversial topic here which I shall go into in more depth here (also touched upon in another blog). Number is a very difficult concept to measure, is counting a good enough measure to show that a child/ infant understands the concepts of number. Piaget didn’t think so for children (5-8 years old) and so developed a conservation task but what about infants? It is hard to test such a complex phenomena on infants due to their lack of communication making it hard to ‘tap into’ their thoughts. One way to overcome this is habituation experiments which gets children to become used to a certain stimuli and when a different stimuli is presented they are shocked therefore dishabituate. Through this measure Gelman was able to show that infants at 3 months old could habituate to all variations (colour/ size/ lines/ spacing) of a set of 3 and would dishabituate to 2 objects. It is hard to say at this point from this experiment that these children are actually sensitive to number but we can tell that they are sensitive to small sets – just maybe not anything else. 

  • Babies are also sensitive to facial expressions and have an ability to imitate and recognise these from just 1 day old. These are shown to be innate as they set infants up to ensure they are safe – if they can imitate a parent then they are going to initiate caregiving and therefore survival.
  • Also babies are particularly sensitive to language (even more so than adults in some respects). They can recognise the differences between all languages particularly through being sensitive to the voice onset of phones e.g. /pa/ /ba/.

We can also infer a construct being innate if the ability can occur before learning does. This can be demonstrated through counting principles – there are 5 and they are all learnt at different ages dependent on their complexity. There is controversy as to whether the ability of counting appears before (Siegler) or after (Gelman) the principles are learnt which form the basis of the nature/ nurture debate. Gelman in particular holds the view that the principles preceded counting therefore is this debate the ability is innate and fits into pre existing knowledge. Gelman also argues that counting is a phenomena similar to that of language – they are both acquired with a poverty of the stimulus. Children show evidence for knowing principles – a bunny rabbit counts in the wrong order (stable order principle) and this will be corrected way before influence of the environment. This can be evident in infants also using preferential looking – a video shows an adult counting correctly and another of an adult counting in the wrong order the latter will be a surprise and infants look at it for longer. 

Drawing upon the language example now it is clear that we do not gain enough exposure to all the rules of our language before we start speaking them. Chomsky brings the idea of poverty of the stimulus that seems to make sense. We talk to our children in ‘child directed speech’ which is unrepresentative of how we actually talk yet they still pick up the correct rules (with trial and error). Chomsky suggested an inbuilt system termed the LAD – this integrates all of the language we hear into rules it already knows. This accounts for how we are able to pick up the rules so quickly with no true teaching. 

Although language is not developed in infancy it is important to note the distinction between preverbal abilities and abilities after language is acquired. It is a general consensus that many abilities such as language and number are innate but with the help of language these abilities become more and more developed into the ones we are more exposed to in adulthood. For example in infancy it is clear that infants are sensitive to small number sets – no bigger than 3. With the acquisition of language ordinal properties of language are seen to flourish. This is where children are able to understand the difference in size of numbers. For example in infancy when shown two piles of toys a child may go for pile of 5 over 3 bigger sweets but after language they are able to recognise that although there are less sweets in number there are more in volume. 

An important note is culture – many cultures are invariant in language acquisition and production therefore a great support for how abilities develop from basic ones in infancy to complex expert abilities in adulthood. It is interesting how language occurs in different cultures as some cultures such as tribes in Africa do not use child directed speech and do not talk to their children like we do at all. They use language about the here and now with daily tasks in mind with little reminiscing. This is highly contrasting to western cultures who place a lot of emphases on reminiscing and social interaction rather than daily tasks. Yet even with these different inputs these children all output language the same – a good support for an innate acquisition and its importance in ability development. 

From these examples it would suggest that knowledge is innate – we have inbuilt (basic) structures to acquire our knowledge and integrate it in a meaningful way. Language is a great mediator to show these cognitive abilities in childhood but in infancy they are much harder to see. This used to be attributed to the fact that there are none – therefore knowledge is acquired through nurture. But through the adaptation of more sophisticated ways to test infants we can see which abilities develop early and therefore which ones could be innate. 

Understanding whether an ability is innate or not can be very important for those with an impaired ability such as dyslexia – if we can understand how this arises it is easier to overcome. 


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