Human beings are uniquely able to understand sophisticated concepts through the use of language. Issues relating to comprehension encompass a wide variety of areas in linguistics, communication, and cognitive studies. Constructs regarding comprehension can be broadly divided into two theoretically diverse approaches, which diverge on the emphasis they place on cognition as an individual, self-contained process, or as a culturally situated one.
The first approach is distinctly Cartesian, with emphasis primarily on what takes place within the individual. It is profoundly influenced by the work of Noam Chomsky, who sees the systematic use of rules and representations as central for understanding language systems. Within this approach issues regarding comprehension primarily have to do with how people are able to parse sentences and construe word meaning, with an emphasis on rules (principles and parameters) for the former, and component features for the latter.
Salient aspects of this orientation include the centrality of genetic endowment – the “hard wiring” that allows human beings to learn language – and the consequent emphasis on language universals, as well as the modularity of cognitive processes. This orientation has been criticized for a variety of reasons; among those most relevant to comprehension is that it draws upon and contributes to metaphors of mind that may not accurately or fully describe cognitive processes. The “mind as computer” metaphor constructs the mind as a largely self-contained mechanism that functions by using sophisticated algorithms that allow language input to be understood and produced. The conduit metaphor posits communication largely in terms of the packaging of meaning into words, which are transmitted to the interlocutor, where they are unpacked for understanding.
The second approach includes a variety of theoretical orientations that emphasize the social and cultural aspects of understanding, and the co-construction of meaning. From this perspective meaning is not simply packaged into words and unpacked by an interlocutor, but rather language itself is a significant tool for the construction of meaning. Theoretical orientations that are consistent with this approach include: cognitive linguistics in the tradition of George Lakoff, with its emphasis on metaphor and the centrality of embodiment for an understanding of human cognition; approaches to semantics that emphasize context, such as frame semantics; various forms of discourse analysis, particularly those that emerged from ethnographic traditions; and culturalhistorical theory in the tradition of Vygotsky, with its emphasis on socially distributed cognition and the use of cultural artifacts as cognitive tools. These orientations share the belief that comprehension is not something that takes place primarily within the confines of the head, but rather in relation to contexts and environments that include interaction with others, and their intentions. In this way meaning is seen as negotiated rather than transmitted. While less theoretically unified than the Cartesian approach, these orientations in general have been criticized for not conforming to the standards of natural science, and for not providing sufficient models for understanding how cognitive processes are implemented within the brain.
Disagreements about how categories are formed within the mind reflect this theoretical division. On the one hand the classical approach – in reference to its roots in Aristotle – is predicated on the idea that category membership is based on a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. Hence, we know that a dolphin is a mammal based on its having specific features that define the category “mammal.” Categories are discrete, and all members that meet the criteria enjoy equal status. Prototype theory, on the other hand, holds that categories are constructed around real or idealized central members, or on the basis of family resemblance.
Boundaries can be fuzzy, and members can be better or worse exemplars of a category. Hence, a table is a better (more central) member of the category “furniture” than a telephone, and sparrows are better members of the category “bird” than penguins. Proponents of prototype theory hold that studies where subjects are able to rank category members as better or worse indicate the importance of prototypes for cognition and understanding. Proponents of the classical category, on the other hand, hold that the ability to rank membership is essentially an epiphenomenon related to experimental conditions, rather than a true indication of how cognitive processes work. With respect to comprehension, the classical category is highly consistent with the Cartesian approach to language and cognition, emphasizing processes within the individual, while prototype theory is consistent with approaches that emphasize negotiated meaning and the cultural aspects of communication.
While much research into comprehension is theory driven, there are also a number of specific issues that researchers within a variety of fields have addressed. In cognitive studies the roles of working memory, attention, and auditory perception have been of particular interest. Within linguistics, areas besides syntax and semantics that have been investigated in relation to comprehension include the use and interpretation of speech acts (how we do things with words) and the role of communicative gestures that accompany language.
A significant question within discourse analysis is whether understanding takes place primarily from the top-down, with lower-level language aspects being derived from discourse, or bottom-up, with discourse structure being built from lower-level linguistic structures such as syntax and semantics. Within the field of second-language acquisition significant research has been conducted on both listening and reading comprehension (particularly as regards vocabulary, background knowledge, and narrative schema), the relationship of comprehension to production, and the influence of affective factors such as motivation or anxiety. Issues relating to comprehension also extend to neuroscience, in efforts to better understand what takes place within the brain during communicative activity, with studies of aphasias playing an important role. Even literary theory, where questions of whether meaning is contained in the text or constructed by the reader in interaction with the text, deals with issues relevant to comprehension.
- Chomsky, N. (1980). Rules and representations. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, fire, and dangerous things: What categories reveal about the mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.