Home Winsights
No. 51 (June/July 2001)

Proposed Experiment in
Concretized Learning

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.

Where possible, don't define a term or word with another term or word. Define it instead by pointing to what it depicts.
#A principle of General Semantics

The major concern of Jean Piaget was that the child would not be allowed the chance to build that conservation-of-quantity concept directly through play experience, that the amount of water would remain the same regardless of the shape of the container — and with that constant-quantity concept, the concept of reversibility of actions, and with that the concept of irreversibility of actions. He feared that adults and schools would, instead, teach him the fact of that concept so that his understanding of everything thereafter, in which those concepts had bearing, would be correspondingly diminished, forever.


Most problems in power of understanding — "intelligence," if you please — may derive from the fact that a concept's earliest experiential roots are several levels of abstraction above the most concrete level of experience. The human brain may need for the beginnings of that conceptual context to be thoroughly grounded in sensory and sensori-motor concrete experiences. A sufficient rooting of context in appropriately concrete sensory experience may enable far more of the individual's available intelligence to operate in that context.

With specific reference to the learning of foreign languages, one major reported hurdle is the student's learning to operate directly in the new language without having to translate back into his first language.

Herein is proposed a simple procedure, to be used from the start of the encounter with a given foreign language, which may facilitate not only this hurdle but the first phases per se of learning a foreign language.

One or more instructors, departments or even schools of foreign language are requested to experiment with this proposed simple, game-like, slapjack-like procedure.

The basic problem of human intellectual functioning may be that of a mismatch. The first experience, in context of a given concept or set of concepts, often may be learned in the abstract or in word terms before one has assimilated enough sensori-motor-concrete experiences which exemplify that concept.

Thus the learner may never assemble those experiences into the kind of concept with which he processes and understands further experience. Instead of becoming a perceptual and cognitive tool for understanding reflexively, the concept learned-as-fact may become instead part of the load of factors which the person is burdened and bound to take into conscious account.

Jean Piaget, for example, was greatly concerned that because schools and adults are in the business of teaching concepts as facts, they may in fact too successfully do so — that by adult persuasion they lead learners to accept as fact that the amount of water stays the same, no matter what shape container it is poured into.

Instead of building a reflexive grasp of how quantities remain constant, the child then fails to assemble his own experiences into the concept of conservation of quantity. Taught instead the fact, already several levels of abstraction above concrete experience, he is burdened with yet one more thing to memorize and try to take into formal account — and usually doesn't bother to do so.

The kinds of failed understandings that result are what newspapers delight in reporting about our schools and their students and graduates. Worse, not only does the child not assemble as reflex perceptor this essential sense of the constancy of quantities, he does not go on to assemble the closely related further concepts or reflex-perceptors of reversibility of some actions and the irreversibility of other actions.

Without his own concrete experiences assembled into these most basic concepts, the child does not have these concepts reflexively working for him, rendering meaningful and understandable all those wide ranges of phenomena around him in which those principles play a role.

Jerome Bruner, who also did much to advance the science of cognitive development, pointed out that even when one has advanced from the level of concrete operations to the level of action-response (a stair is to climb; a chair is to go to and sit on; a door is to go through) to the level of abstraction (or of "formal operations"), one still has all three levels continuing.

The human developmentalist model, in its many forms, posits an upside-down pyramid of development, where higher levels encompass far wider ranges of experience and competency than the layers below them.

In this developmentalist model, shared by many different programs and professional disciplines, the child needs a great amount of experience at the base level in order to encode to the next, and broader, level of operations. And, again, much experience is needed at that level before he can encode there to the next level up, again encompassing far more than the previous level.

Too little experience or damage at one level attenuates or even prevents the ability to function at levels higher up. Enrichment and therapy models both try to identify the lowest level which was impaired, build in extra experience at that level, and then work stage by stage through higher levels to enable the individual to function as well as possible at the higher levels.

General Semantics, founded by Polish Count and philosopher Alfred Korzybski, found nearly all of us to be virtually at the mercy of flaws in the structure of our language and of connotative manipulations of language by advertisers, demagogues, etc.

We are especially vulnerable to confusion because, among other problems, we have misunderstandings in word meaning and try to wrestle these misunderstandings out high in levels of abstraction, where our errors compound themselves. Even looking up definitions in the dictionary, we compound our difficulties because of what we misunderstand in those definitions!

General Semantics orients to a reality which our senses and concepts seek to map, but which at best we can merely approximate. One works toward sanity the way science works, seeking to make his sensory and conceptual maps of reality correspond more and more closely to reality. One of the fundamental principles of General Semantics training is that, wherever possible, one should define his words or terms by what he can concretely point to, rather than abstractly by word definition.

More generally, there appears to be extensive professional opportunity for investigating the hypothesis that

o  Grounding each concept area sufficiently in concrete sensori-motor and sensory experience will enable one to engage much more of his intelligence in that area.

o  To the extent that he has not built such a concrete sensory base of experience in that context, much or most of his intelligence remains essentially unavailable to him.

Formal investigation of this hypothesis could well prove fruitful in terms both of the most fundamental of further scientific findings and of human benefit.

The main thrust of this present article, however, is to propose a simple experiment in the area of the learning of second or foreign languages. The writer is not set up in any way to be able to pursue this experiment: yet virtually any institutionally involved or supported teacher of a second or foreign language, or any school or school department, should have little difficulty in pursuing this study as proposed.


Problem at which the study is directed

Two of the greatest hurdles in learning a second or foreign language, for those who experience this process as difficult, are:

  1. The early phases of learning the language, before enough context has been built up to sustain and reinforce ongoing learning, or to support much reinforcive processing in that language.

  2. Having to translate back into one's own first language instead of working directly in the new language.
The proposed, game-like, experimental procedure addresses both difficulties. It would be used, in fact, almost entirely in the earliest stages of language learning, while using Psychology's most fundamental principle, the Law of Effect, to directly condition the learner's new language to the most basic sensory experiences.

First stage
Ingredients — several hundred common objects, distributed around tables. At each table, 4 to 6 students are seated. The instructor — or a pre-programmed tape — pronounces one of the objects in the new language. Object of the game is to be the first at your table to touch or hit the object in question — like being the first to become able to call out "bingo!"

It is important to keep this activity as a light-hearted game and not a real competition.

Early on, levels of difficulty may be differentiated between tables with one tape or person at each table to sound the object, and with participants sorted from table to table by their level of performance.

In this process, running by conditioned reflex faster than thought, a basic sensori-motor conditioned recognition vocabulary of several hundred nouns is painlessly built. This activity, as well as the second stage, below, is meant to be only one in a mix of several activities and procedures used in the learning and teaching of foreign languages, and so can well complement, or fit unobtrusively with, Lozanov-based method or other advanced systems of techniques such as those variously practiced by many of the professionals of the International Alliance of Learning.

Second stage
Some hundreds, or thousands, more nouns and basic verbs, in the language being learned, are to be depicted on-screen via computer, with the basic game modified to keyboard and emphasis of the game becoming more and more a matter of surpassing one's own previous scores, as distinct from players surpassing one another. In large part this is because learners are expected to further differentiate in their respective levels of ability as more and more of the language becomes learned.

Again, this computer-based version of the game is intended to be only one of many various elements and techniques used in the ongoing class. The experiment, here and in the first stage above, is to determine what differences in learning rate and subsequent performance result when this "game" is included among the mix of procedures with some classes and not with others.

Given the above discussion, the prediction is that the students with whom this game is included will learn the initial stages of the new language at a somewhat faster rate than the controls. Further, the later stages of language-learning will proceed at a substantially more rapid rate with the experimentals than it will with the controls. The experimentals should enjoy an accelerating advantage over the controls.

Retention for years past the time of teaching should also be at least somewhat higher for the experimentals than for the controls. Last and perhaps most significant, the experimental group should develop, by end of training, a substantially higher proportion of people who can think and act directly in the acquired language, instead of having to translate back constantly into their native tongue.



The proposed experiment involves more than simply a test of a possible new technique for learning and teaching languages, desirable as that may be. If the hypothesis is supported, then greater weight of attention may be brought to bear on the entire issue of levels of abstraction in cognition and in human intellectual performance.

If consequent further findings point in the same direction, considerable opportunity for improving intellectual experience and performance is indicated, extending far beyond matters simply of learning a second or subsequent language. The writer requests discussion and comment.


Comments to:
Win Wenger

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