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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Signs, Signs, Everywhere There's Signs

Rosettta Stone attempts to introduce the ideas of "the real thing" and "a representation of the real thing" (which, given the language-teaching approach to which they have committed themselves, must be done entirely pictorially) by showing, say, the Japanese flag and an aerial photo of Japan. The first, the sentence with the photo says, represents ("rappresenta") Japan, while the second is Japan. Now, I can tell what they are getting at, but... the thing is that an aerial photograph of Japan is really just another representation of Japan (or a sign for Japan), as much as the flag is. The work in different semiotic modes, of course, the photograph being an icon (representing by likeness) and the flag a symbol (representing by convention), but neither is Japan, and it requires an act of interpretation to connect either to Japan.

I'm not saying that within Rosetta Stone's self-imposed constraints, I could have done any better -- I'm sure I couldn't. But boy, those constraints start to make things tricky when it comes to conveying more advanced concepts than "The boy throws the ball." And I think the level of their Italian course which I am on (five) isn't the last level by accident: their approach will have exhausted its potential by the end of this level. Can you imagine trying to teach someone how to say, e.g., "If only he had been kinder, I think I might have learned to love him" using only pictures?!

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