Talking to Aliens

When we discover intelligent life, how will we communicate with them?

Let’s face it, in most science fiction stories, the aliens speak excellent English (or whatever language the story is written in.) Occasionally, there is a nod to a future in which the language of universal exchange has evolved and everyone speaks Standard. Then there is the old reliable “Universal Translator”. Fortunately for the story, these machines are accurate and rarely get confused by double meanings. When the writer wants to emphasize the extremely advance nature of the aliens, they may communicate by mental telepathy. These solutions certainly allow the writer to get on with his story, without getting lost in the difficulties of communication.

Communicating even with other humans who speak the same language as ourselves is far from easy. We know even less about how to communicate with other animals that share our planet. Scientists have discovered vervets have different calls for snakes, leopards, and eagles, which cause the hearers to respond appropriately. These calls could be thought of as nouns (“leopard”) or verbs (“run for the trees!). It is not clear whether these are innate calls, or whether they are learned in the process of growing up in that group.

For an abstract of an article about vervet calls,

Dogs cannot speak, but they understand words – most articles say about 165 words, although recent MRI research suggests they may understand more.

Dogs also make eye contact, can follow the direction of a point made with the hand or the eyes, and can understand nonverbal tone of voice. They also respond to body language and gestures.

How well so we understand what our dogs are telling us? Dog trainers can become experts in interpreting the nonverbal cues that dogs generate, but it is through a long process of learning. The same is true for horses and other animals people spend time with.

Koko the gorilla uses over 1100 signs, according to the organization that cares for her. She understands both signs and spoken words.

There is no evidence that any animals besides humans understand syntax.
For example, “The bear jumped on the lion” has a different meaning than “The lion jumped on the bear.” An animal might understand “lion”, “bear” and “jump”, but not the relations between the words.

Elephants, dolphins and humpback whales all have elaborate systems of vocalization, but we do not know what these vocalizations mean.

Communication by Scent?

Even though human language is auditory or visual, there is no reason to assume that aliens will use those senses to communicate. We already know that ants communicate with chemicals, and bees communicate by motion and touch. Sight and sound do have advantages for being able to communicate over a distance, but in a dark world, visual communication would be useless. In a closed in world like a hive, sound might be less useful as a way of communicating.

Aliens could even communicate using sense that we don’t have. Sharks can detect electromagnetic discharges produced when their prey moves. This is useful for locating prey in dark waters.

Fish have a lateral line on each side of the body that detect minute changes in water pressure.
They use this sense to perceive motion in the water

The Cuban boa constrictor can detect the body heat generated by its prey through special sensory organs on the bottom of its jaw.

Personally, I would love to be able to detect magnetic fields in my head, the way some birds do. I would always know which way north is!

Even if aliens use visual or auditory means to communicate, we may not be able to detect it. Some animals can see infrared, ultraviolet, and polarized light. Dolphins and bats hear ultrasonic frequencies that are too high for humans to hear, and elephant can hear subsonic frequencies. And here’s a bit of trivia for you – the opening to an elephant’s ear is actually behind those big flapping things on their heads, unlike humans.

Parsing alien language

If aliens converse using signals that we cannot detect, we will certainly need that Universal Translator to talk to them. But even if we can see or hear their signals, it will still not be easy to understand them. Have you ever heard people conversing in a language you don’t understand? You know that they are speaking words, but it is impossible to pick out the words in the flow of speech. Fortunately, with other humans there are nonverbal cues that we can use to help with understanding each other. Nonverbal are culturally influenced, and therefore not as universal as we sometimes assume, but they still make communication easier.

How we acquire our first language

Every infant faces a considerable challenge in learning their first language. They have to learn what sound distinctions are important in the language. They have to learn to pick out individual words from the stream of speech. They need to learn the meanings of the words. They have to learn the grammatical relations of the language. Finally, they have to learn how to use language to get their needs met. This includes how to express politeness, assertiveness, and deference that smooth or disrupt social relations.

Infants are born with the ability to distinguish many of the sounds of all language. In fact, as they acquire one language, they learn to ignore and can no longer hear the distinctions that are not important. They are also helped in the enormous task of learning language by innate awareness of nonverbal communication. They distinguish between a gentle melodic tone, and an angry brusque tone. They will look at what their caregiver is looking at, and in time can look where someone is pointing.

Caregivers also help young children learn language by using a special way of speaking. They use short, simple, direct sentences. Children also prefer sentences with more melody. Many caregivers use more intonation in their voice, whether they learn that children respond better to this, or learned it from their own caregivers.

When we encounter aliens, we won’t have any of the advantages that young children have. We will have to learn their nonverbal behaviors. We will have to learn what sounds are significant. We will have to learn what units of the language are meaningful referents to objects and actions. Then we will have to learn to use the language without irritating the aliens so much that they attack us.

Talking to aliens will not be easy. But if we are successful, we will learn not only about the aliens, but about ourselves.

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