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Communication is the top priority when it comes to a close encounter with an alien species, and linguists have been pondering how they would do it for years.
We’ve all seen movies and television shows in which the aliens already know the English language. Of course, that makes it easier for the audience. But in real life, we can’t expect that aliens will automatically know what we are saying to them. So, it’s going to be up to linguistics experts to do the heavy lifting when and if the opportunity ever arises to communicate with them.
Of course, language barriers are the main risk. Even a peaceful alien species could misunderstand what we are trying to say to them and interpret our words as hostile. Language barriers and misunderstandings have been the cause of confrontation and war between humans for centuries. There’s no reason it couldn’t happen between humans and aliens, which means linguists have to be very careful.
“There are all sorts of cultural interpretations of even the simplest phrases,” Bentley University linguist Daniel Everett told Live Science. “That’s why conversation is so difficult.”
“You’re always going to blow it,” he continued. “It’s not what you do, but what you do next. How do you respond to your mistakes, to your gaffes, and to misunderstandings?”
Indeed, if the aliens are not patient with us and react negatively to the most minor of accidental insults, it could be a combustible moment that turns into a disaster instead of triumph.
And for all we know, any alien race that visits Earth could have a sinister reason to do so.
Take the film Independence Day, for instance. Our military attempts to communicate with the aliens by flashing symbols and lights with a helicopter, only for the aliens to respond by blowing the helicopter out of the sky. Clearly, everyone understood that particular response.
But even if the aliens are like the lovable and friendly creature most of us remember from the film E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, we may still have our work cut out for us.
If we were to encounter an alien race, we would likely try every possible language on the planet in an effort to find some common language. But we can’t assume that aliens know anything about our languages, even if they’ve been visiting our planet for years to study us.
Just as they will be alien to us, we will likely be just as alien, or perhaps more so, to them.
That means it could be harder than most people think to communicate.
Sheri Wells-Jensen is a linguist at Bowling Green State University, and she has thought a lot about how she would approach breaking down the linguistics barrier between humans and aliens.
“If we are expecting to come across an alien language, we have to start thinking about what language is, how we recognize it and how it could be different from what we know,” she told Scientific American. “We need to create a bunch of crazy hypotheses, and we need to start thinking outside our box.”
It could be that aliens use a form of sign language to communicate or even a series of clicks with their mouths. Perhaps they can only speak telepathically, which could make it even more of a challenge for linguists.
But Wells-Jensen points out that many humans cannot even get over the differences among ourselves.
For example, some white people believe people of color are inferior. Skin color is a minor difference, but it’s a difference many people cannot overcome. If we can’t get along with each other, imagine how hard it would be for humans to get along with an alien species that may not even look like us at all.
Think the aliens from Battle: Los Angeles or Independence Day rather than the Vulcans from Star Trek.
“If we as a species cannot even deal with minor differences such as race and gender, why do we think we are going to get along with crab-shaped aliens, for example?” Wells-Jensen said. “Can we be kind and empathetic to one another, which is a small task compared to saying, ‘Yeah, let’s welcome the crab-shaped aliens with their intestines on the outside of their bodies who chew with their mouths open.'”
However, just because alien bodies may differ tremendously from ours, it doesn’t mean we can’t communicate, and Wells-Jensen is confident she could break down the barrier over time.
“It would take a while to learn it fluently, but I feel like I could learn it,” she said, going on to warn that alien language could be incomprehensible. “But how far do you have to go before it slips over into incomprehensibility? It could be that alien languages just get harder and harder to understand as the forms of the body diverge. Or is there this barrier? For instance, “No, my brain can’t do that”? Would the two languages forever be incompatible? We have to practice thinking about these examples—even the ones we don’t like.”
Harvard psychologist Jesse Snedeker, who studies childhood language development, agrees.
“We have to ask ourselves, ‘Would we have the capacity to learn alien language, and would they have the capacity to learn ours?'” he told Live Science.
After all, humans can hardly communicate with any other species on Earth. Sure, dogs can understand hundreds of words in various languages depending on who is training the animal, but we can’t have two-way conversations. What if aliens are the same way?
Regardless, communicating with aliens will be a difficult task no matter who is given the job and no matter how much we prepare. We are dealing with the unknown, and there’s always going to be risk involved. Even the most peaceful and friendly of aliens could feel deeply insulted by us if we say or do the wrong thing or make the wrong gesture. Giving the thumbs up may be the equivalent of giving the middle finger in the alien’s culture, and we certainly don’t want to do that. We just have to hope the aliens are as patient and understanding with us as we hopefully will be towards them.
And that’s assuming they ever want to communicate with us at all.
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