Saturday, April 4, 2015

Language: Comprehension & Perception

The finest words in the world are only vain sounds, 
if you cannot comprehend them.  
~ Anatole France

Even before I could actually read, letters, and all words made up of those letters, fascinated me. It didn’t matter what the material was—cereal box, signboard, mailbox, the raised letters on the tires of the family car—if there were words, I wanted to read them!

When I was a child, my father often brought home (used, discarded) National Geographic and Scientific American magazines. The one magazine he had a subscription to was Popular Mechanics. Big words, odd words, never-before-seen words ran through these magazines. I didn’t ask for definitions and seldom looked them up in our family’s dictionary. Most of the time, there were enough familiar words interspersed so that I absorbed what was needed to satisfy my young mind. Once in a while I even learned and then understood a new word.

Several years ago I worked for a doctor whose reception area was rife with magazines dedicated to scientific quests and discoveries as well as publications dealing with amazing architecture, aesthetic elements and environmental issues. When two or three back issues piled up, I had approval to take them home.

During my recent weeks of reading The Great Bridge, I was struck by how fascinated I had become with the extremely detailed engineering data, with the ways in which the laborers maneuvered and manipulated the tons of steel and miles of wire and by the minute, onsite calculations which had to be made in order to complete that massive bridge.

However, I don’t remember one iota of that information! Why did I enjoy the book as much as I did, considering my inability to comprehend the intricate details? Did I enjoy the book less than a scientifically learned mind? There’s really no way of measuring that, of course.

This is why I began thinking about the ways in which language comprehension affects our perception—of life and of life’s events (yes, I easily go off on tangents such as this!).

Nanci Bell of Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes, San Luis Obispo, California has written, “Language comprehension is the ability to connect to and interpret both oral and written language. It is the ability to recall facts, get the main idea, make an inference, draw a conclusion, predict/extend, and evaluate. It is the ability to reason from language that is heard and language that is read. It is cognition.”

Even if I don’t recall all the facts in The Great Bridge, I certainly grasped “…the main idea.” Therefore, I feel I can discuss the book fairly intelligently. If I were speaking with someone who had also read the book it’s likely some pertinent data buried in my brain might surface and I would feel comfortable adding that to the conversation.

There are times when language comprehension, or lack of, can lead to great misunderstanding and anger; and not simply for people whose native language is not English (as we know it). Even for those of us who speak the same language, there are many times when simple statements are heard as threats; times when we read an editorial in the newspaper and infer something entirely different than what was actually meant.

Maybe our perceptions are what determine how we comprehend language, rather than the other way around?

The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.
~Henri Bergson.