In the study involving two communities of aboriginal children, which do not have words or gestures for numbers, the research team found that they were able to copy and perform number-related tasks.
"Recently, an extreme form of linguistic determinism has been revived which claims that counting words are needed for children to develop concepts of numbers above three. That is, to possess the concept of 'five' you need a word for five," said Professor Brian Butterworth, lead author from the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.
"However, our study of aboriginal children suggests that we have an innate system for recognizing and representing numerosities - the number of objects in a set - and that the lack of a number vocabulary should not prevent us from doing numerical tasks that do not require number words," he added.
The researchers worked with children aged four to seven from two indigenous communities, one on the edge of the Tanami Desert about 400 km north west of Alice Springs where Warlpiri is spoken; the other on Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria, where the local language is Anindilyakwa.
Both have words for one, two, few and many, though in Anindilyakwa there are ritual words for numbers to 20, but children will not know these.
"In our tasks we couldn't, for example, ask questions such as "How many?" or "Do these two sets have the same number of objects?" he said
"We therefore had to develop special tasks. For example, children were asked to put out counters that matched the number of sounds made by banging two sticks together. Thus, the children had to mentally link numerosities in two different modalities, sounds and actions, which meant they could not rely on visual or auditory patterns alone.
"They had to use an abstract representation of, for example, the fiveness of the bangs and the fiveness of the counters. We found that Warlpiri and Anindilyakwa children performed as well as or better than the English-speaking children on a range of tasks, and on numerosities up to nine, even though they lacked number words.
"Thus, basic numerical concepts do indeed appear to depend on an innate mechanism. This may help explain why children in numerate cultures with developmental dyscalculia find it so difficult to learn arithmetic.
"Although they have plenty of formal and informal opportunities to learn to count with words and do arithmetic, the innate mechanism on which skilled arithmetic is based may have developed atypically," Butterworth added.
The findings are published in the journal PNAS.