Linguistics Colloquium: Dror Dotan
Dror Dotan, Tel Aviv University
Title: The role of language and memory in numerical and mathematical thinking
Numerical and mathematical literacy is one of the core abilities that the education system aims to teach children. Which cognitive mechanisms underlie our ability to think about numbers? Can specific cognitive strengths and weaknesses explain why some children do better than others in math? Can we use cognitive training to help children?
I will examine these questions with respect to several specific aspects of mathematical literacy: the ability to read and say numbers and to perform arithmetic computations. Although these abilities are defined as mathematical/numerical, some of them rely heavily on domain-general mechanisms such as memory and language.
For example, arithmetic facts such as the multiplication table are stored in verbal long-term memory, and are subject to the limitations imposed by verbal memory. I will show how, by understanding in detail how arithmetic facts are stored in memory, we can make it easier to learn them.
More complex arithmetic, e.g., multi-digit calculation, depends on additional mechanisms such as working memory. I will show how cognitive disorders in different sub-processes within working memory can lead to different types of difficulties in multi-digit arithmetic.
Finally, I will show how we read numbers: although this is done by cognitive processes dedicated to number processing, these processes show surprising resemblance to language processing. For example, the cognitive system seems to represent multi-digit numbers in a hierarchical structure, similar to the “syntactic trees” that we use to represent sentences in language.
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