If we ever came across aliens, would we be able to understand them?

If we ever came across aliens, would we be able to understand them?
Welcome, mates. Credit: Stocksnapper/Shutterstock

Many scientists believe that alien civilisations exist. For them, the question is now whether we will encounter them in the near future or a very long time from now, rather than if at all. So let's imagine that we suddenly stand face-to-face with members of an alien species. What would we do first? Surely communicating that we come in peace would be a priority. But would we ever be able to understand each other?

The one thing we can be confident about exchanging with aliens is scientific information. If the laws of the universe are the same everywhere, then different descriptions of these laws should, in principle, be equivalent. This is the rationale behind initiatives like The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI).

Matters are more complicated when it comes to language, which is the single most important factor in human cooperation. It is by communicating our intentions that we are able to work together in surprisingly large groups. For this reason, it is plausible that any technologically versatile alien civilisation would have something like language.

Can we expect to learn such an alien language? The first hurdle would be its medium. Humans communicate in a 85-255Hz frequency range of sound and in the 430-770 THz frequency range of light. This is unlikely to be true of aliens, who will have evolved differently. Nevertheless, the problem is largely a technical one. Speeded up whale songs that are otherwise inaudible to humans, for instance, show that it is relatively easy to map "alien" stimuli into forms that humans can perceive.

Grammar versus semantics

The more difficult question is whether we would ever be able to learn the internal structure of an alien language. Existing perspectives in the psychology of language give two very different answers.

The generativist approach, which holds that the structure of language is hardwired into the brain, suggests this wouldn't be possible. It argues that humans come with an inbuilt universal grammar that has a specific number of settings – each corresponding to the acceptable order in which words and parts of words can be arranged in a given language system. The language we hear in early life activates one of these settings, which then allows us to distinguish between valid and invalid ways of combining words.

The key point is that the number of grammars is very limited. Though the rules of human languages can and do vary, proponents of the generativist model argue they can only do so within strict parameters. For example, the "head directionality" parameter determines whether the verbs in a language precede or follow their complements, with English being head-initial ("Bob gave a cake to Alice") and Japanese being head-final ("Bob to Alice a cake gave").

For generativists, it is extremely unlikely that an alien species would happen to have the same parameters as human beings. In the words of Noam Chomsky, the leading proponent of this view:

If we ever came across aliens, would we be able to understand them?
Searching for extraterrestrial messages with the Parkes Observatory. Credit: Ian Sutton/wikimedia, CC BY-SA
If a Martian landed from outer space and spoke a language that violated universal grammar, we simply would not be able to learn that language the way that we learn a human language like English or Swahili … We're designed by nature for English, Chinese, and every other possible human language. But we're not designed to learn perfectly usable languages that violate universal grammar.

The cognitive view, on the other hand, sees semantics (structures of meaning) as being more important than syntax (structures of grammar). According to this view, sentences like "quadruplicity drinks procrastination" are syntactically well-formed but semantically meaningless. For this reason, proponents of the cognitive view argue that grammar alone is not enough to understand language. Instead, it needs to be partnered with knowledge of the concepts that structure how language users think.

We can also look at our own world to see how organisms can have striking similarities, even if they have developed in very different ways and in contrasting environments. This is known as "convergent evolution". In physical terms, for example, wings and eyes have independently emerged among animals through evolution at several different times over, and birds in ecologically isolated New Zealand have evolved behaviours typically seen in mammals elsewhere.The cognitive view offers hope that human and alien languages might be mutually intelligible.

Some argue that even the most advanced human concepts are built up from basic building blocks that are shared across species, such as notions of past and future; similarity and difference; and agent and object. If an alien species manipulates objects, interacts with its peers and combines concepts, the cognitive approach therefore predicts there might be enough mental architecture in common to make its language accessible to humans. It is implausible, for instance, that an that reproduced biologically would lack concepts for distinguishing between genetically related and unrelated groups.

But is the cognitive view correct? Research on neural networks shows that languages could be learned without specialised structures in the brain. This is important because it means there may be no need to postulate an innate universal grammar to explain language acquisition. Also, it seems there may be human languages that don't fit in the framework. Though these results are far from conclusive (for instance, they can't explain why humans alone seem to have language), the evidence leans towards the cognitive account.

So, it might be reasonable to assume that humans could learn alien languages. Clearly, there would probably always be aspects of an alien (like our poetry) that are inaccessible. Equally, some species may occupy such a different mental universe that it is only broadly equivalent to that of humans. Nevertheless, I think we can be cautiously optimistic that universal structures in the physical, biological and social worlds would be enough to anchor human and languages in a common semantic framework.

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Jul 28, 2016
QUOTE - What would we do first? Surely communicating that we come in peace would be a priority.

Why would you communicate that? That is a case where actions speak louder than words. Why would you tell any being, even if you meant to wipe them out. We come to make war?

Jul 28, 2016
We're designed by nature for English, Chinese, and every other possible human language. But we're not designed to learn perfectly usable languages that violate universal grammar.

I don't buy this. E.g. we're not 'designed' to be fluent in mathematical systems. Yet we're fully able to learn how to converse in them. If we can communicate by math then we can find a common language built around this.
Math gives us all the tools to form grammatical sentences, from cause-effect relationships to more tenuous correlation and probability statements. And that's what language does in effect: it conveys relationships between concepts. If we can map the concepts then we can construct a common language.

Or we could sidestep it by letting a neural network learn our language, learn their language and serve as an interpreter.

I think we'll manage one way or the other.

Jul 28, 2016
We have species like the whales and orcas of our own planet that we haven't bothered to learn the language of. I highly doubt true alien beings would be any easier to understand.

Jul 28, 2016
Just curious but why do you believe we know much more than rudimentary math compared to anouther species?
Or for that mater perhaps their math is vary rudimentary compared to ours.

But I believe we would manage communication. It's just that any spices that is advanced enough to get here, would have no more interest in communicating with us than we do ants.

Jul 28, 2016
Maybe aliens have a religion like Islam that compels the aliens to chop off human heads.

Jul 29, 2016
Language is the tool through which we transcribe subconscious free thought into conscious ideas which we can manipulate. Its influence on all of our conscious interaction with the world is both sublime and inescapable, underpinning the complexity of our thought. As a system of communication, language has enabled a continuity of social intelligence (one which I believe, we have cultivated quite nicely).
The real question being asked, imo is if we believe a species intelligent enough to travel across galaxies would likely have a language with enough structure to be translatable.
If anything their language would be too complex for us to understand. The problem is that if we met an alien species with a comparably complex language, the profound relationship between language and perception would make even an "accurately" translated language meaningless.

Jul 29, 2016
Maybe aliens have a religion like Islam that compels the aliens to chop off human heads.

Unlikely, the compulsion to kill for killings sake is a brain disfunction,probably caused by a chemical imbalance.
Besides if Einstein and the other theoretical physics are right then time travel is possible forward and backward. In which case you are not taking on only the current generation of aliens but also their far future generations with VERY advanced technology at their fingertips.
What intelligent race would want to chance that? Perhaps that is why we hear nary a peep from any alien civilizations.

Jul 29, 2016
We have species like the whales and orcas of our own planet that we haven't bothered to learn the language of.

But whales (presumably) don't cooperate in wanting to learn/teach a common language to the extent an alien species would.

If you try to learn a language (say chinese) and the person you're talking to just throws random words back at you then you won't make much headway. If the chinese person tries actively to interpret what you're doing then you can eventually come to an understanding.
People have been stranded on islands and learned the native language of sorts. While that goes with the 'common language structure' argument in the article we have to consider that with an alien contact we'd have the entirety of the world's resources at our disposal.

And if they are the ones to make contact with us then they likely are a bit more advanced in getting information accross (chances are high they've done so before and have a workable procedure for this)

Jul 30, 2016
Most Aliens or E.T. Extraterrestrial's are Telepathic, and usually find someone w.a higher Open/Telepathic Consciousness...and if they cannot, they can connect thru Telepathic Messages & Intentions...which is what happened to me on many occasions...
And Unfortunately, many who've Not received Contact...have the tendency Not to Believe, out Envy or Ego...
We All Have Telepathic Abilities, within various levels and degree's(some more than others)...but You must "Truly Believe" w.a Truly Open Mind, Heart&Soul to truly connect and comprehend your Telepathic Abilities and Connections!
Please Do Not attack me, simply ignore, if you Don't Understand, nor Accept my own personal beliefs & explanations, which many will eventually find and accept in their later years, once they've found true Peace within their higher Spiritual Heart, Mind, Body and Soul...and know this is an absolute Fact&Reality through Meditation, Meditation & more Meditations...Speak to your Soul Telepathically~

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