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Language Comprehension: Archival Memory or Preparation for Situated Action?

By  and Lawrence W. Barsalou and Lawrence W. Barsalou


Current paradigms study language comprehension as if archival memory were its primary function. Subjects only receive linguistic material and are later tested on memory for its contents. In contrast, the two target articles in this issue, Glenberg and Robertson (in press) and Roth (in press), examine comprehension as if preparing for situated action were its primary function. Besides receiving linguistic materials as input, subjects study objects, actions, and interactions between agents. Rather than simply being tested on memory for linguistic materials, subjects also produce actions and enter into group interactions. Although these researchers focus their attention on specific genres---the comprehension of verbal instructions and the comprehension of scientific theories---their methods and findings have wider implications. In particular, the primary function of comprehension is not to archive information but is instead to prepare agents for situated action. Arguments from the evolution of cognition and language are brought to bear on this thesis, and perceptual simulation is proposed as a mechanism well-suited for supporting situated comprehension. Finally, it is conjectured that studying comprehension in the context of situated action is likely to produce significant scientific progress. Sense fades into reference. Roth (in press) If an outsider reviewed research on language comprehension, what conclusions might he or she reach? After reviewing this literature myself for a text on cognitive psychology (Barsalou, 1992, Chapters 8 and 9), I concluded that comprehension is essentially archival memory, describing it as follows: (1) Words enter the cognitive system through phonemic and graphemic processing. (2) Word representations are translated into amodal syntactic str..

Topics: Roth (in press
Year: 1998
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