Semiotics, put simply, constitutes the study of signs and symbols, as well as their meanings or interpretations. Semiotics include both linguistic and non-linguistic signs, so anything that employs a visual form to communicate or represent an idea or concept falls under the umbrella of semiotics, ranging, as Marcel Danesi discusses, from the cave drawings of prehistory to the ubiquitous emojis of today. In fact, without semiotics, language and culture cannot exist.

Developing proficiency in a language requires a learner to understand the increasing degrees of representation within the confines of a culture’s semiotic inventory. Being able to read, for example, means developing a level of semiotic understanding. In English the letter A is a symbol or sign that represents a particular set of sounds that manifest in different linguistic contexts, but unless a learner knows how to interpret that letter within that context, how will they know how to pronounce it?

Understanding these symbols in many instances not only demands that a learner understand aspects of a language like letters, but also to have knowledge of the culture in which the language exists and functions. Reading, enjoying, analyzing, and fully comprehending a poem, for instance, require different degrees of knowledge concerning a culture’s linguistic inventory. How can one read and fully understand the meaning of a poem by Shakespeare without understanding the associations invoked by the description of a “Summer’s day,” the “rough windes,” or the “shade” of death? Delving into the symbolic content of these descriptions can liberate layers of meaning that might otherwise be beyond the learner’s proficiency.