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How To Talk To ALIENS: Do Linguists Play A Role?

First Posted: Sep 03, 2016 05:15 AM EDT
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Assuming one day we may be able to contact aliens, how will we have a conversation with them? Scientists have spent countless hours thinking about ways alien civilizations could contact humans. Some of their ideas are nearly as imaginative as Hollywood's wildest tales. In the upcoming sci-fi drama "Arrival", Alien spacecrafts land on Earth and humanity is faced with how to communicate with these visitors. Linguists hence play a major role in it. 

Talking with Aliens

The first step lies in sending a message to the Outer Worlds. In 1974, scientists beamed a radio message to space from the Arecibo Observatory radio telescope in Puerto Rico containing all the important details of life on Earth. "We want to do anti-cryptography," Doug Vakoch, Director of Interstellar Message Composition SETI said. "We want to create a message that's as easy as possible to decode."

The ideal message to space would also be anti-efficient. NASA has also also released a book called Archaeology, Anthropology and Interstellar Communication to explore how we have approached cross-cultural communications between human cultures, and what those techniques and analytical frames could contribute to understanding a message from an alien culture.

Role Of Linguists

"Linguists can discern the basic features of an unknown language after an hour of interaction with a speaker", Everett told Live Science. A more thorough understanding of the language, beyond basic vocabulary and underlying architecture, would require knowledge of the culture. "There are all sorts of cultural interpretations of even the simplest phrases," he said, "That's why conversation is so difficult," especially for two people with different native languages and cultures.

That difficulty seems less than ideal in sensitive situations, when a minor miscommunication could result in interstellar warfare, or at least, the death of an explorer."We have to ask ourselves, 'Would we have the capacity to learn alien language, and would they have the capacity to learn ours?'" Jesse Snedeker, a Harvard psychologist told Live Science.

If extraterrestrials have starkly different perceptual or expressive systems than those of humans, technology could help bridge the gap, linguists believe. For example, if aliens spoke at frequencies that people can't hear, humans could instead interpret digital recordings as visual waveforms.

Stephen Hawking, in a recent documentary suggested that extraterrestrials are almost certain to exist but that instead of seeking them out, humanity should do all it can to avoid any contact. In movies, the aliens are almost always fluent in English as it eases the burden on both actors and audience. But if we decide to send a shout-out to other worlds, we should abandon the idea that the inhabitants of those distant locales have our mind set - or even a similar mind.

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