Illustrations by Chaim Garcia.
Of the hundreds of science-fiction movies about aliens coming to Earth, very few address the challenges of actually communicating with extraterrestrial visitors. Space aliens are used in media to talk about war, fear of the unknown, xenophobia, cultural conflict (or just the joy of blowing things up in space) — but the logistical difficulties of communication only seem to get in the way of telling a good story. Aliens on the silver screen either somehow already speak English or they don’t even bother to communicate with us and let the guns do all the talking. Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016) did tackle this challenge, to significant critical acclaim, but even then, it only addressed some of the biggest problems. So what kind of challenges would we actually face if extraterrestrials tried to communicate with us? Let’s break this down into some of the biggest obstacles in a quest for alien communication.
Phonetic Aspects Of Communication
Take a moment to think of the auditory stimuli you hear every day: You likely hear language (made by humans), sirens and alerts (made by humans), music (made by humans), machinery (made by humans), and then probably some sounds of nature. The fact of the matter is that humans are only really good at hearing sounds made by other humans, and then we’re merely adequate at deciphering other sounds that originate from our planet. Our ears are optimized to hear and understand sounds that we make, rather than the whole spectrum of sound. This specialization, which is great for our everyday life, could be a potential problem when dealing with extraterrestrial life.
Assuming that an alien species even produces sound to communicate, we might not be able to hear their language or be able to distinguish between sounds that would convey important information. For instance, take humanity’s own issues differentiating phonemes that don’t appear in our native languages. This is the case with the infamous L and R pronunciations for native Japanese speakers in English. They don’t have these sounds in their language, but they do have something in-between these two letters, so when learning English these two phonemes are then very hard to differentiate.
Similarly, one of the reasons why Mandarin Chinese is so difficult to learn is because it’s a tonal language, meaning that pitch and intonation produce different word meanings. We don’t have this in most European languages, so it takes significant practice to hear the differences. Returning to the issues of our alien friends — if the distinction between sounds in an alien language is too subtle for us to notice, it could be very difficult to learn what they’re trying to convey.
The flip side of this is phonetics, or things related to speech. Human speech is made in the larynx, which holds our vocal cords. We use our larynx, together with airflow from our lungs and the manipulation of our mouths, to produce all (spoken) languages. Even if we compare this with the way that fellow semi-intelligent mammals make noise, the contrasts are stark. For instance, dolphins communicate through phonic lips in their nasal passages. They have considerable control over these noises and they use different pitches to convey meaning to their complex social groups — yet we know almost nothing of what they’re communicating about. Not only have we not cracked the code on their language, but we have to use computers to replicate their sounds because humans are incapable of “speaking dolphin.”
Now imagine how these differences might become even starker with life from a completely different planet. It’s unlikely that they would produce sounds the way humans do, making it even more unlikely that we could replicate their language and speak it with them.
The Fallacy Of “Universal” Grammar
Chances are when you reflect back on your foreign language experience in school, you probably thought that learning new grammar was one of the most challenging aspects. Even for languages with relatively simple grammatical structures, learning all the rules again can feel daunting. Unfortunately, as “alien” as this new grammar might’ve felt (looking at you, German), it still followed the rules of Universal Grammar.
Setting aside the misleading name, this theory states that because language is a genetic function, human grammar develops within a set of biological parameters. As wide as the differences seem between Chinese and French, they’re both operating within the framework of Universal Grammar. For example, all languages that we know use nouns, verbs and pronouns. There are also distinct patterns that help linguists understand a language more quickly, like the relationship between word order and whether a language uses prepositions or postpositions. All of the linguistic rules that we take for granted would go right out the window if we came into contact with aliens. Perhaps they’ve found a different way to convey important information without these grammatical constraints.
A smaller but equally important point relates to language and intention. In all human languages, there is a way to notate whether or not something was done “on purpose” or “by accident.” Because free will is so important to humanity, this distinction is essential to our societies. But what if aliens had a different outlook on life? What if there was no way to convey that we’ve accidentally done something, like damaging an object of theirs or causing them harm? That could quickly spell trouble. This is only one example, but we know that language does influence our worldview to some extent. It’s probably not as grand as Arrival would like us to believe, but the number of untranslatable concepts between our languages and an alien language would undoubtedly be large.
Finally, there’s the challenge of tackling their written language. Assuming they have a written language, we should really hope that it’s phonetic in some way and that, ideally, they use an alphabet. Languages that use an alphabet are easier to learn because the sounds of the language correspond to a smaller collection of symbols. Languages that use logograms, or symbols that represent whole words or phrases (like Chinese characters and Japanese kanji), take much longer to learn because one must memorize many symbols before understanding the language. A simple written language would be one way around the issues of oral alien communication, but a complicated writing system would just be another hurdle.
The Logic And Logistics Of Communicating
You may be thinking to yourself at this point that our prospects for communicating with aliens are looking pretty grim — but there are still other impediments left to discuss. While a linguist would naturally hope that communication would happen face-to-face (or whatever constitutes a “face” for an alien), this would be difficult with our understanding of physics. We’re pretty sure there’s no other intelligent life in our solar system, and the closest star system is 4.37 light years (almost 26 trillion miles) away. It would take us over 100 years to get there with our current technology, and scientists believe that it doesn’t have any planets in the so-called “habitable zone.”
The next closest star system with a planet in this precious zone is over 10 light years away. You can probably get the idea that any aliens are likely very, very far away. Some scientists have already anticipated this challenge for decades — and they have a backup plan. The conlang Lincos (short for lingua cosmica) was created by a mathematician to communicate all of humanity’s most complex ideas to aliens using only numbers and symbols via radio waves. It was designed to be supposedly “free” of human syntax and grammar — sidestepping these issues by first creating a baseline understanding of mathematics and simple logic, and then moving onto more complex ideas like time and language.
While this definitely solves part of the problem by avoiding the constraints of natural language, there are two large problems with this approach. First, replies back and forth could take literally decades (if not centuries) depending on how far apart our solar systems are. It would be difficult to have any kind of meaningful contact with this kind of delay, let alone teach an alien race a foreign language. The other criticism levied against Lincos is its pedagogy: It assumes that its math and logic are universally simple. While math and physics are givens for us intelligent, technologically-advanced apes, what is simple for us may not be simple for an intelligent species that evolved along a completely different track on another planet.
This issue comes up in the short story “Story of Your Life” (the basis for Arrival), where scientists manage to create baseline understanding with the aliens on basic arithmetic but struggle to find common ground after that. They realize later that, for the aliens, a type of calculus is the next-most intuitive for their worldview, rather than algebra or geometry. Lincos and other mathematically-based communication methods closely mirror our priorities as humans (building, commerce, organization) and are probably not as universal as we think they are.
What Does This Mean For Us?
When you think about it, the prospect of talking with aliens exposes how human-centric our current understanding of communication — and especially language — is. We know nothing about our potential tandem partners (aside from the fact that they’re not from Earth), so it makes it difficult to foresee what kind of issues will arise. The list of problems above is by no means exhaustive, but it definitely gives us a starting point from which to ready ourselves. Unless we want to be woefully underprepared when extraterrestrials inevitably reach out to us, we better get to it now.