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The developmental onset of symbolic approximation: beyond nonsymbolic representations, the language of numbers matters

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posted on 15.07.2015, 12:58 by Iro Xenidou-DervouIro Xenidou-Dervou, Camilla GilmoreCamilla Gilmore, Menno van der Schoot, Ernest C.D.M. van Lieshout
Symbolic (i.e., with Arabic numerals) approximate arithmetic with large numerosities is an important predictor of mathematics. It was previously evidenced to onset before formal schooling at the kindergarten age (Gilmore et al., 2007) and was assumed to map onto pre-existing nonsymbolic (i.e., abstract magnitudes) representations. With a longitudinal study (Experiment 1), we show, for the first time, that nonsymbolic and symbolic arithmetic demonstrate different developmental trajectories. In contrast to Gilmore et al.’s (2007) findings, Experiment 1 showed that symbolic arithmetic onsets in grade 1, with the start of formal schooling, not earlier. Gilmore et al. (2007) had examined English-speaking children, whereas we assessed a large Dutch-speaking sample. The Dutch language for numbers can be cognitively more demanding, for example, due to the inversion property in numbers above 20. Thus, for instance, the number 48 is named in Dutch “achtenveertig” (eight and forty) instead of “forty eight.” To examine the effect of the language of numbers, we conducted a cross-cultural study with English- and Dutch-speaking children that had similar SES and math achievement skills (Experiment 2). Results demonstrated that Dutch-speaking kindergarteners lagged behind English-speaking children in symbolic arithmetic, not nonsymbolic and demonstrated a working memory overload in symbolic arithmetic, not nonsymbolic. Also, we show for the first time that the ability to name two-digit numbers highly correlates with symbolic approximate arithmetic not nonsymbolic. Our experiments empirically demonstrate that the symbolic number system is modulated more by development and education than the nonsymbolic system. Also, in contrast to the nonsymbolic system, the symbolic system is modulated by language.


This work was supported by the NWO (National Dutch Organization for Scientific Research) under Grant number PROO41107 111. CG is funded by a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship.



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XENIDOU-DERVOU, I. ... et al, 2015. The developmental onset of symbolic approximation: beyond nonsymbolic representations, the language of numbers matters. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, article 487.


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