One, Two, Many | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

One, Two, Many

An Amazon tribe sheds light on how language affects perception.

Are there concepts in one culture that people of another culture simply cannot understand because their language has no words for it?

No one has ever definitively answered that much debated question, but new findings by Peter Gordon, Professor of Speech and Language Pathology at TC, strongly support a "yes" answer. Gordon has spent the past several years studying the Piraha, an isolated Amazon tribe of fewer than 200 people, whose language contains no words for numbers beyond "one," "two" and "many." "Whether one language chooses to distinguish one thing versus another affects how an individual perceives reality," he explains.

Tribe members appear to use methods of estimation and "chunking" (breaking large sets into smaller groups) to guess at the size of sets of objects. Their skill levels were similar to those in pre-linguistic infants, monkeys, birds and rodents, and appeared to correlate to recent brain imaging studies indicating a different sort of numerical competence that seems to be immune to numerical language deprivation. Interestingly, Gordon noted, while Piraha adults had difficulty learning larger numbers, Piraha children did not.

Gordon's study received widespread coverage in the national and international press.

Published Wednesday, Apr. 20, 2005