On July 12, Future Tense will host a happy hour event in Washington about communicating with aliens. For more information, visit the New America website.
How do you teach a language nobody speaks or has ever heard? That’s the first question Sheri Wells-Jensen, a linguistics professor at Bowling Green State University, had to answer while designing the curriculum for her course in xenolinguistics—the study of alien languages.
“The problem of not having an existing alien language isn’t really a problem,” Wells-Jensen said. “If we ever get one, it would be nice if some people had thought about it ahead of time. You’ve got to get ready. We could make first contact tomorrow. We don’t know.”
If we did make first contact tomorrow, Wells-Jensen says, humanity’s first instinct would probably be to find the most prestigious, well-educated linguists around and “get them to our secret base,” à la Dr. Louise Banks, Amy Adams’ character in the 2016 movie Arrival. In the film, when 12 UFOs appear at locations around the globe, Banks gets tapped by the U.S. Army to go to the spacecraft hovering in Montana to decipher the utterly foreign language of the aliens in it and find out what they want. It’s Hollywood, of course, so it only takes a montage or two before she’s fluent.
If the real world actually got alien visitors, we’d probably start attempts to communicate similar to the ways they do in the movie—using pictures, and lots of pointing and gesturing, to establish a basic vocabulary of simple words and descriptors. But, unlike the depictions in Arrival, our best hope for learning to communicate quickly and effectively might rest not with the studied linguists of the world. Instead, we may want to bet on our planet’s best learners: toddlers.
But first, back to the adult experts. How do you teach something truly alien? It’s impossible, says Wells-Jensen, but we can start with the basics.
To study the hypothetical, Wells-Jensen’s university class in xenolinguistics discusses the relationship between language and thought and the types of message construction common in Earth languages. They also look at what Earth languages don’t do, but also what we could probably handle. Humans exhibit an extraordinary ability to communicate, and when it comes to communicating with aliens, Wells-Jensen says, there’s plenty of potential—so long as their style is at least a little bit “people-ish.”
For example, many of our communication methods are dictated by our bodies and by the way we manipulate the physical world around us. If the aliens had something resembling hands—and, preferably, a face that could direct attention toward an object—we might stand a chance at understanding one another.
“We could learn a humanlike language, and we could learn a furry bunny-shaped language, but we probably couldn’t learn the language of hyperintelligent sugar blobs,” Wells-Jensen said.
There’s also a good possibility that the medium of an alien language won’t be sound. In Arrival, the fictional aliens communicate through visuals, “speaking” in circular gaseous emissions that represent full sentences. If the language medium in a first contact scenario turned out to be something we can’t reproduce, Wells-Jensen acknowledges, it would present a fairly serious problem. What if their language were chemical or magnetic fluctuations? What if it were too high- or low-pitched for us to hear? There are a lot of what ifs, she says.
In reality, we probably won’t have any idea what extraterrestrial beings look or sound like when we first hear from them, says Wells-Jensen, who’s worked with experts at the astroscience institute Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or METI, International (formed by a former director of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, who broke off to focus more on talking to, not just listening for, extraterrestrials). In all likelihood, first contact will be a message transmitted from light-years away, picked up by someone at an organization like METI.
“We’ll get a radio signal, people will be really excited, and then it’ll be over,” Wells-Jensen said. “We’ll figure out how to send an answer back, and then we’ll have to wait 50 years to see if it worked.”
But, like all astrolinguists, Wells-Jensen traffics in hypotheticals, so she’s happy to entertain ideas about what would happen if life imitated art and it played out like Hollywood imagined it. So, what if aliens did come to Earth? And they did have a language we could comprehend and reproduce, and bodies that allowed them to manipulate our environment? And we were reasonably sure they won’t eat us or otherwise destroy us?
Assuming all those hypotheticals are satisfied, this brings us back to toddlers. The best thing Earthlings could do to pick up an alien language in this scenario might be to send in children who are just learning to speak. Since this age encompasses the time of peak neuroplasticity in humans—a period in which one of the brain’s primary focuses is figuring out how to give and receive information—these kids make the perfect candidates for naturally picking up patterns that even expert adults might miss.
Babies begin to recognize speech as a form of communication when they reach around 4 months old, and they start learning language fast and furiously. At that point, they’re capable of both hearing and reproducing every individual sound—called a phoneme—used in all 6,500 or so languages on Earth. Because we lose that ability in adolescence or before, young children are capable of learning to pronounce the phonemes of a second language with no accent, something most adults can’t do.
Catharine Echols, a University of Texas professor who studies the acquisition of language, says very young children are not only able to become fluent in a language to a degree impossible for adults, but they’re also a lot more flexible in terms of what sounds they’ll classify as language. That flexibility could really come in handy when we encounter sounds that may not exist on Earth.
Echols points to studies that show 13-month-olds learning words are more willing to associate nonlinguistic sounds—such as a beep, signal, or tone—with a description of an object, whereas older children increasingly favor speech. But the window is small, and that kind of brain malleability doesn’t last. “By 20 months, children won’t accept a whistle or a harmonica sound as a label for an object,” Echols said. “They’ll only accept words.”
If we could get 15-month-old humans in a room with aliens, their analytical brains would, theoretically, give them a leg up in breaking down an unfamiliar language into its basic parts and grammatical structures. Many traditional linguists believe language learning is primarily about recognizing patterns and regularities in speech, and that’s something young kids are set up to do really well.
“We should be able to learn any kind of communication that has some kind of structure to it,” Echols said. “To recognize a system, you need to break it into its component parts, and, in part because their memories aren’t so great, children might be even better at focusing on those small pieces.”
If depending on humans who can’t yet reliably use a toilet to figure out how to communicate with an extraterrestrial species sounds ridiculous, well, that’s because it is. But the entire study of alien life—as well as the cultural, theological, and economic impacts of first contact—depends on theories totally unmoored in reality as we know it. And understanding the unknown, Wells-Jensen says, requires thinking outside the box.
If we’re faced with solving a problem that we know is really hard, and which affects the entire human race, we can’t just try one thing, she said. We have to try things we think are stupid—to accept brilliance, creativity, and wisdom from wherever it comes.
“Doing something this hard and this important is going to require our best, most gracious selves, so we better start getting ready,” she said. “It’s dangerous and beautiful and impossible, and it could happen at any moment.”