The complete process of understanding can be characterized by the joke about two psychoanalysts who meet on the street. "One says, ‘Good morning’; the other thinks, ‘I wonder what he meant by that." (Pinker, 1994, p. 230)
When we look through a window, we can perceive a scene outside without being aware of the window itself. Just as the window is transparent, so is language (Smith, p. 50). We understand language in such an automatic way that we forget how complex language comprehension is--"almost impenetrably complex" from the psycholinguist’s perspective (Scovel, 1998, p. 50).
Begin reviewing psycholinguistic literature about language comprehension, and the phrase "almost impenetrably complex" seems to be "almost an understatement!" For writers and writing instructors who persevere, however, reviewing research in the field can yield some insightful and useful information for writers and writing instructors. Clearly, to understand what a writer should do, we have to look at what the reader must do. "After all, writers generally aim to produce something that readers can comprehend….Composition and comprehension are in many respects inseparable" (Smith 1994, p. 52).
Cognitive theories deal with mental representations--the way memory encodes our knowledge and represents it to our consciousness for thinking. Comprehending text is a cognitive act. When we read and comprehend text, we must perform such cognitive acts as perceive and discriminate, analyze patterns, interpret information, and predict outcomes. One immediate challenge for psycholinguists is to explain how text appearing in printed form becomes transformed into its abstract, mental form (Sadoski, 1999).
Another challenge for psycholinguists is to remember that reading creates mental images that can be very psychologically real. Cognition "does not occur in a vacuum or in a disembodied mind but in a perceiving, feeling, acting body" (Sadoski, 1999, paragraph 52). When cognitive researchers forget this, the omission is testimony to the "divided heart" of cognitive science. On one hand, cognitive theory recognizes that readers are humans with "blood, hormones, and emotions; on the other, it models readers as machines" (Sadoski, 1999, paragraph 55).
In general, it is assumed that a reader who has understood a text will have a well-structured mental representation of that text. In such a case, he typically will retain the gist of a text. Thus, psycholinguistic researchers assume that most of what is remembered from a text is the result of comprehension (Gernsbacher, 1994, p. 699). Beyond this generality, the methods of investigating text comprehension are diverse and depend on the objective of the study. For example:
To study the meaning readers attribute to a text, methods used include recall protocols, answers to questions, judgments on text statements, and importance ratings.
To understand comprehension processes, approaches include collecting reading times as readers normally read the text, tracking eye movements and gaze duration on individual words, and recording patterns of eye movements across words.
To tap both conscious and unconscious comprehension processes, readers are periodically interrupted during comprehension and asked to complete a word-naming task as quickly as possible.
The greatest influence on sentence comprehension is meaning (Scovel, 1994, p. 68). As Smith (1994) says, "We do not understand words by deriving meaning from them, but by bringing meaning to them" (p. 51).
Research involving meaning shows that semantics is more important than syntax. In other words, a syntactically simple sentence which doesn’t make sense to us is more difficult to understand than a plausible sentence that has a more complex syntax. Consider these sentences, for example:
The burglar was arrested by the police officer.
The burglar arrested the police officer.
Normally, a linguistically simpler active tense sentence, such as Sentence 2, is easier to understand than the passive Sentence 1. But because of the implausible meaning of the active tense sentence, readers take more time to process the information (Scovel, 1998, pp. 68-69).
Comprehension of longer texts also shows the importance of meaning and context. "Texts that fit into a context which we understand are comprehended more quickly and remembered more readily than ones which are presented to us without a context" (Scovel, 1998, pp. 68-69).
The presence or absence of background information can dramatically affect the way people remember. In one well-known experiment, subjects read a series of paragraphs and, after each reading, they were asked to repeat as much as possible of what they had just read. To "replicate" this study, read the following example and then, without looking at the text, try to write down as much as you can remember from what you have read.
With hocked gems financing him, our hero bravely defied all scornful laughter that tried to prevent his scheme. Your eyes deceive you, he had said, an egg not a table correctly typifies this unexplored planet. Now three sturdy sisters sought proof, forging along sometimes through calm vastness, yet more often over turbulent peaks and valleys. Days became weeks as many doubters spread fearful rumors about the edge. At last, from nowhere, welcome winged creatures appeared, signifying momentous success. (Scovel, 1998, p. 67)
People generally have trouble recalling exact wording and the sequence of sentences in this passage and probably are baffled by the text. But if people are told it involves the story of ‘Christopher Columbus discovering America,’ the situation changes and people have much more accurate recall. "This suggests that top-down information, which provides general background knowledge about a text, is useful in the comprehension of larger units of language because it helps activate mental associations which then assist in overall comprehension and recall" (Scovel, 1998, pp. 67-68).
Ambiguity and garden path sentences
Sentences seem to be understood sequentially. Each new word in a sentence adds to the meaning of the words immediately preceding it. At the same time, each new word helps the reader anticipate the following word or words (Scovel, 1998, p. 64). But in a "garden path" sentence, the first words lead the reader down a garden path which leads to an incorrect analysis. Garden path sentences show that people analyze a sentence according to a structure that seems to be working until they come across words that do not fit. Then they backtrack and start over with a different structure. Naturally, this ambiguity slows down comprehension time.
Here are two examples of garden path sentences:
The cotton that sheets are usually made of grows in Egypt, but the cotton clothing is usually made of grows in Mississippi.
The mediocre are numerous, but the prime number few. (Pinker, 1994, p. 212)
Garden path sentences are "one of the hallmarks of bad writing. Sentences are not laid out with clear markers at every fork, allowing the reader to stride confidently through to the end. Instead the reader repeatedly runs up against dead ends and has to wend his way back" (Pinker, 1994, p. 213).
Limits to short-term memory
Dangling phrases that need particular kinds of words to complete them burden people’s short-term memory. People must dedicate some of their short-term memory to dangling phrases. "But short-term memory is the primary bottleneck in human information processing. Only a few items--the usual estimate is seven, plus or minus two--can be held in mind at once, and the items are immediately subject to facing or being overwritten" (Pinker, 1994, p. 201).
Here is an example of a dangling phrase that remains open in memory too long. This is typical of "bureaucratese" which people find hard to construe:
"That many teachers are being laid off in a shortsighted attempt to balance this year’s budget at the same time that the governor’s cronies and bureaucratic hacks are lining their pockets is appalling." (Pinker, 1994, p. 202)
Saving the heaviest part of the sentence for the last can lighten the burden for the listener:
It is appalling that teachers are being laid off in a short-sighted attempt to balance this year’s budget at the same time that the governor’s cronies and bureaucratic hacks are lining their pockets." (Pinker, 1994, p. 202)
Many linguists believe that to ease the load on the listener’s memory, languages inherently feature phrase choices among more-or-less synonymous constructions. As long as the words in a sentence can be grouped into complete phrases, a sentence can still be complex yet understandable:
... This is the cow with the crumpled horn that tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rate that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built. (Pinker, 1994, p. 203)
Reader motivation and feelings
The goals of the reader affect text comprehension and memory. Naturally, reading a spy thriller for enjoyment is different from reading income tax instructions. Yet, the human qualities of motivation and feelings "count for more in reading comprehension than has been studied" (Sadoski, 1999, paragraph 47).
As M.J. Adler concluded in 1940, "the best that reading can be, the best it ever was or ever will be, is found in the act of reading a love letter. Every word is savored, every level of meaning explored, every nuance of intention and extension embraced. Reading is something we do transcendently well when we are in love" (cited in Sadoski, 1999, paragraph 49).
Gernsbacher, M.A. (Ed.). (1994). Handbook of psycholinguistics. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Kess, J.F. (1992). Psycholinguistics: psychology, linguistics, and the study of natural language. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct. New York: William Morrow and Co.
Sadoski, M. (1999). Comprehending comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 34 (4), 493-501.
Scovel, T. (1998). Psycholinguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Smith, F. (1994). Writing and the writer. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Spence, J.T., Darley, J.M., & Foss, D.J. (Eds.). (1997). Annual review of psychology, volume 48. Palo Alto, CA: Annual Reviews Inc.