Thought and language, concrete and abstract

Posted by on August 7th, 2018 | 0 comments | gapfill, IELTS, practice test, reading, summary completion

With a friend – picture in your mind a banana, and then picture ‘freedom’. Compare your mental pictures with your partner’s. Then complete this summary!

And when you’ve finished this, try the next post that looks at 3 theories about how we learn concrete and abstract concepts!

Language allows us to give names to things that we can see and touch, but we’re not sure how language allows us to label abstract ideas. If we Google ‘banana’ then we are likely to see pictures that are more or less the same. However, more abstract words like ‘freedom’ bring up images that are all quite different. Science has shown that it is more difficult to learn and remember abstract concepts because they are processed by different areas of the brain. Research into how language works tends to focus only on concrete ideas, and this is obviously because concrete concepts such as banana are easier to learn. It is easy to explain, therefore, how meanings shape our understanding of concrete concepts. However, without physical experiences as a reference, it is not so easy to explain what abstract concepts are made of.

How language shapes your thought

Words work as a glue, allowing us to group together different experiences under one label. This is especially true for concepts that we cannot see or touch. But we still don’t really understand how language works in shaping the meaning of more abstract concepts, or how it allows us to group experiences together under one “umbrella” term, which denotes something we cannot point to, or see, or touch.

Concrete concepts such as “banana” and abstract ones such as “freedom” differ in many ways. To get a grasp of this difference, Google the words “banana” and “freedom” and compare the images that are returned by the browser. For “banana” you get pictures that are quite similar to one another. For “freedom”, on the other hand, you get very different types of images that apparently have little in common.

The difference between concrete and abstract concepts has been a feature of many scientific studies. This research has demonstrated that concrete concepts are far more easily learned and remembered than abstract ones. Clinical studies conducted on patients with damages in specific brain areas reveal that some patients lose the ability to understand and recall abstract concepts but not concrete ones. This is because abstract and concrete concepts are processed in different, although overlapping, brain areas.

Despite these documented differences, and despite the fact that around 70% of the words we use on a daily basis designate abstract concepts, most scientific theories that address the big question of how language works in the brain are based on analyses of words denoting concrete concepts only.

It’s obvious why. Imagine that an alien came from outer space and wanted to learn your language. You could show her a banana while spelling the word “banana”, and after a few times the connection might stick to the alien’s memory. But how would you teach her the meaning of “freedom”?

It turns out that explaining how our daily experiences shape the meaning of concepts is important. For concrete concepts, this works fairly well: colours, shapes, textures, flavours, sounds, smells and everything that we perceive through our bodies contribute to shape the meaning of concrete concepts. But what colour or shape does “freedom” have? What type of experience can represent the meaning of “freedom”? If our bodily experiences don’t contribute directly to shape the meaning of abstract concepts, then what are abstract concepts even made of?

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