world knowledge (language studies)

Dorothee Chwilla, "How Does the Brain Establish Novel Meanings in Language?" The Handbook of the Neuropsychology of Language, ed. by Miriam Faust (Blackwell, 2012).


In language studies, the non-linguistic information that helps a reader or listener interpret the meanings of words and sentences. Also called extra-linguistic knowledge.

See also:

Examples and Observations:

  • "'Oh, how do you know that word?' Shimizu asked.

    "'What do you mean, how do I know that word? How could I live in Japan and not know that word? Everybody knows what the yakuza is,' I answered with slight irritation."
    (David Chadwick, Thank You and OK!: An American Zen Failure in Japan. Arkana, 1994)
  • "Crucial to comprehension is the knowledge that the reader brings to the text. The construction of meaning depends on the reader's knowledge of the language, the structure of texts, a knowledge of the subject of the reading, and a broad-based background or world knowledge. First language reading authorities Richard Anderson and Peter Freebody posit the knowledge hypothesis to account for the contribution these elements play in the construction of meaning (1981. p. 81). Martha Rapp Ruddell refines their hypothesis when she claims that these various knowledge elements interact with one another to build meaning. . . .

    "Interestingly, it seems as though reading is an excellent source of the knowledge that is needed for reading comprehension. Albert Harris and Edward Sipay, in discussing first-language reading development, state that 'wide reading not only increases word-meaning knowledge but can also produce gains in topical and world knowledge [italics added] that can further facilitate reading comprehension' (1990, p. 533)."
    (Richard R. Day and Julian Bamford, Extensive Reading in the Second Language Classroom. Cambridge University Press, 1998)
  • A Child's Development of World Knowledge
    "Children develop their knowledge of the world around them as they interact with their environment directly and indirectly. The direct experiences children have in their homes, schools and communities certainly provide the greatest amount of input to the world knowledge base. Much of this knowledge base is developed incidentally without direct instruction. For instance, the child whose commute to the main road takes her along a bumpy, gravel driveway with cows on either side incidentally develops a world map in which driveways embody these characteristics. For this child to develop an understanding of driveways that is more encompassing--in which driveways can be cement, blacktop, dirt, or gravel--she must experience many different driveways either through her own travels, through conversations with others, or through various media . . .."
    (Laura M. Justice and Khara L. Pence, Scaffolding With Storybooks: A Guide for Enhancing Young Children's Language and Literacy Achievement. International Reading Association, 2005)
  • Relating World Knowledge to Word Meanings
    "In order to understand a natural language expression it is usually not enough to know the literal ('dictionary') meaning of the words used in this expression and compositional rules of the corresponding language. Much more knowledge is actually involved in discourse processing; knowledge, which may have nothing to do with linguistic competence but is rather related to our general conception of the world. Suppose we are reading the following text fragment.
    'Romeo and Juliet' is one of Shakespeare's early tragedies. The play has been highly praised by critics for its language and dramatic effect.
    This piece of text is perfectly understandable for us, because we can relate its meaning to our general knowledge about culture and everyday life. Since we know that the most famous Shakespeare was a playwright and the main occupation of playwrights is writing plays, we conclude that the word tragedy in this context refers to a work of art rather than to a dramatic event and that Shakespeare has written it rather than, for example, possessed [it]. The time attribute early can refer only to an event, therefore we infer that it modifies the event of Shakespeare writing 'Romeo and Juliet.' Time attributes of art creation events are usually defined relative to the life time of the corresponding creators. Therefore we conclude that Shakespeare has written 'Romeo and Juliet' when he was young. Knowing that a tragedy is a kind of play, we can relate 'Romeo and Juliet' to the play in the next sentence. Similarly, the knowledge about plays being written in some language and having dramatic effect help to resolve the anaphoric it."
    (Ekaterina Ovchinnikova, Integration of World Knowledge for Natural Language Understanding. Atlantis Press, 2012)

    Also Known As: encyclopedic knowledge, background knowledge