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Language, procedures, and the non-perceptual origin of number word meanings*



Perceptual representations of objects and approximate magnitudes are often invoked as building blocks that children combine to acquire the positive integers. Systems of numerical perception are either assumed to contain the logical foundations of arithmetic innately, or to supply the basis for their induction. I propose an alternative to this framework, and argue that the integers are not learned from perceptual systems, but arise to explain perception. Using cross-linguistic and developmental data, I show that small (~1–4) and large (~5+) numbers arise both historically and in individual children via distinct mechanisms, constituting independent learning problems, neither of which begins with perceptual building blocks. Children first learn small numbers using the same logic that supports other linguistic number marking (e.g. singular/plural). Years later, they infer the logic of counting from the relations between large number words and their roles in blind counting procedures, only incidentally associating number words with approximate magnitudes.

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[*]Address for correspondence: David Barner, Department of Psychology, UCSD, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, CA, 92093. tel: 858-246-0874; e-mail:


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