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How the comprehensibility of information can optimize the effectiveness of our communication

Prof. Wilbert Spooren, Professor in Dutch Language and Culture

What makes information comprehensible? In a quest to find an answer to this question, CLS researchers focus on the difference between concrete and abstract language. Professor Wilbert Spooren, “Various theories claim that concrete language has a range of positive effects. Compared to abstract language, concrete language is thought to enhance people’s interest in information and improve their comprehension and memory of that information. The major problem in current research is that it is unclear exactly what concrete language is. Some researchers claim that if something is concrete, it is something that you can see, hear, taste, or feel. Others state that something is concrete if it is detailed.”

Wilbert SpoorenUnraveling concreteness
As a result of these inconsistencies, little is known about how concrete language influences the comprehensibility of information and, consequently, how it might optimize effective communication. Spooren, “In a recent study, we aimed to shed more light on this by assessing the determinants of concreteness. What is it exactly that makes one word more concrete than the other? We asked people to score over 2,000 words on how concrete they found these words. We also asked them to indicate how specific, comprehensible, perceptible, and “drawable” they thought each word was.” Our results showed that the perceptibility of a word, i.e. the degree to which it can be seen, heard, tasted, or felt, is most strongly related to how concrete it is. For that reason, words like freedom and power are less concrete than words like castle and soap. This finding gives us relevant insights into the nature of concreteness. Moreover, it can inform the development of experimental materials and thus provide an impetus to further research on concrete language.

Non-verbal signals
In the near future, CLS researchers will continue their work on comprehensibility. “Research on comprehensibility is highly relevant considering the fact that much information pointinformation is becoming inaccessible to an increasing number of societal groups,” says Spooren. Crucially, what is comprehensible for one group might be incomprehensible for another. Spooren, “Not only do we need to take differences between social groups and individuals seriously, we also need to enlarge the scope of research on comprehensibility. Non-verbal signals such as pictures are also relevant for the comprehensibility of language.”

Technological tools
The Centre for Language Studies offers a stimulating environment for further research in this direction. Experts in the fields of health communication, financial communication, and persuasive communication collaborate in their joint endeavour to uncover the characteristics of comprehensible information. “We also benefit from the work of those CLS researchers who are experts in developing and studying large databases of texts, for example with the help of technological tools,” says Spooren. “The combination of discourse studies and computational linguistics opens doors for exciting new research projects.”