The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (20091) defines to understand as "(tr.v.) 1a: to grasp the meaning of something <understand Russian>; b: to grasp the reasonableness of something <his behavior is hard to understand>."

Both meanings convey two ideas: firstly, the idea of having knowledge of something (be this of a language, a person's personality, etc); secondly, the idea of having an awareness of which particular pieces of knowledge are relevant to interpret the context correctly. For example, understanding a language requires both knowing the intrincansies of that language (e.g. vocabulary) and knowing how to interpret what is being said at a given time (e.g. selecting the meaning intended in a particular context among a word's full range of possible meanings).

Understanding, thus, is similar to "making sense". In this way, it is also related to the psychological concept of "sensemaking" (although sensemaking is normally reserved to achieving understanding in situations of high complexity or uncertainty (Wikipedia, 20093).

Theoretical frame

We can, thus, define "understanding" as comprising both knowledge as well as awareness of how and when to use such knowledge. This definition is very similar to that of "competence", as per Perezgonzalez (20052). Thus, understanding something, like a language, means being competent in that language. And being competent in a language means having enough knowledge of syntax, grammar, and vocabulary as well as being able to isolate particular meanings and rules of use as for making sense of a particular utterance1.

Many of the initiatives for easying language acquisition deal both with reducing the amount of knowledge needed to master a language (e.g. a reduced vocabulary, a simplification of grammar and syntax, etc) and with reducing the diversity of meanings and rules of use. The same goes with applying cognitive ergonomics in documentation: reducing word length and sentence complexity aims to create a simpler knowledge base, while using plain English aims to also reduce ambiguous or redundant meanings. Both measures should foster understanding, while allowing increasing levels of competence over time.

The implications of this hypothesis is that understanding cannot be achieved unless both expertise (as in knowledge, experience, practice, etc) and awareness (as in when and how to use such expertise) are present. Both of them normally go hand by hand; however, it is still possible to manage either of them separately without a consequent increase in understanding. Examples of this would be learning vocabulary that rarely occurs in a conversation, or exposing oneself to particular contexts (such as conversations, tape recordings or television programes) without having enough vocabulary to comprehend what is being said.

If this is the case, then people's competence in science requires two things. Firstly, to provide the knowledge background for communicating. This implies either using "plain" language or teaching new vocabulary progressively. Secondly, to provide enough awareness as for elucidating appropriate meaning. This implies either providing such contextual awareness in the document itself or requiring certain background context (as in prior knowledge) as a pre-requisite. Although the latter options are possible in academy and formal courses, the former options (i.e. using "plain" language and providing the apropriate context in the text) seem more advantageous in most cases.

1. MERRIAM-WEBSTER ONLINE DICTIONARY (2009). Understand. Retrieved from Merriam-Webster Online on 21 October 2009.
2. PEREZGONZALEZ Jose D (2005). An alternative way of managing health and safety. Lulu Press (USA), 2005.
3. WIKIPEDIA (2009). Sensemaking. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 21 October 2009.

Want to know more?

Wikipedia - Sensemaking
A brief introduction to the concept. Not very good, though.
Wikipedia - Understanding
A brief introduction to the concept. Not very good, either.

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