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All communication is accomplished using symbols. A symbol is something used to convey a meaning. It could represent an idea, an action or an object. People are able to create symbols using written marks, such as punctuation, letters, numbers, and arithmetic operation signs; pictures; gestures or other body motions, such as tapping someone on the shoulder; and sounds, including both spoken language and non-verbal utterances, such as "mmm …" and "uh huh." There are also symbols generated by electrical or mechanical devices, such as horns, traffic lights, computers, radio transmitters, telephones and doorbells. Symbols generated electrically or mechanically are sometimes called signals. These include gestures; for example, putting a finger over one's lips is a signal for "Quiet!"
When people communicate, they have to use symbols, because these provide the only clues about what we are thinking. For communication to work, both the originator and the receiver have to agree on what the symbols mean. A language is a system of symbols with generally agreed-upon meanings. There are also graphic symbol systems, such as the set of symbols used on a map, for musical notation, to indicate chess pieces, to describe cross-stitching patterns, etc. A symbol system that does not use words is called a code. Some codes use numbers, such as Zip Codes and ISBN's, while others use gestures, such as the football referee's signaling system. Braille language is a tactile code for representing letters and numbers. Bar codes are patterns designed to be read by optical scanning machines. A key shows the translation between a code and ordinary language.
How are the meanings of symbols established? There are two basic methods. Some symbols imply their own meaning, by using images or sounds that correspond in some way to the concepts they represent. For example, a "Wheelchair Access" symbol shows an icon of a wheelchair, which would be recognized by most people. Symbols of this kind we call expressive symbols. Other symbols, such as the letters of the alphabet, have no logical connection at all with the things they refer to. These we call arbitrary symbols. People can usually figure out expressive symbols for themselves, but arbitrary symbols simply have to be memorized.
Communication breaks down when the sender and receiver interpret the symbols differently. This can happen because a symbol has more than one meaning, more than one symbol has the same meaning, or the receiver simply hasn't learned the meaning in the same way as the sender. When a symbol has more than one meaning, the alternate meanings are called homonyms, by analogy with two words in a language that sound the same but have different meanings. Homonyms can be confusing, because the sender may have intended one meaning for a symbol, while the receiver assumes another. If someone is unsure about the intended meaning of a symbol, they generally try to use clues from the environment, i.e., the context, to clear up the uncertainty. A more subtle problem occurs when more than one symbol has the same meaning. We call the alternate symbols synonyms, again by analogy with spoken or written language. The problem here is that the receiver may associate a particular synonym with the meaning, and not expect another. Here again, context is crucial in establishing that a particular symbol is being used to convey a particular meaning. Frequently, children lack the contextual clues assumed by adults, or vice versa, which can lead to a breakdown of communication between them. How many adults understand the shorthand language children use in on-line chats?
Much of education consists of learning to create messages in various symbol systems, and translating among them. For example, learning to read means learning to translate from written language both to spoken language and to the concepts represented by language. Arithmetic "word problems" require translation from written language to mathematical shorthand. Errors in translation often occur because math teaching focuses more on the syntax - the structure of the language - than on the semantics - what the symbols actually mean. For example, the statement "There are three times as many dogs as cats" is mistakenly translated syntactically as 3D = C, while the correct equation would read D = 3C.
Symbols qualify as technology, because they are invented by people to solve problems. Like other forms of technology, they can be analyzed to see how well they accomplish their purposes, and redesigned if found wanting. An evaluation question for a symbol is: "Does it convey the intended meaning?" A typical symbol has a variety of elements that work together, and these elements can be identified and analyzed separately. For example, the commonly encountered "NO SMOKING" symbol includes a circle, a diagonal bar, a cigarette, and smoke. It uses particular colors, line widths, and sizes for the various parts. In analyzing this symbol, it is useful to ask how well each of these elements contributes to the overall goal.
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