How To Talk To Aliens (No, Really)
Like us, you’ve probably spent your weekend watching, digesting & trying to make sense of Denis Villeneuve’s latest sci-fi head-scratcher ‘Arrival’. In the film, linguist Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) helps to communicate with extraterrestrial beings who have landed across the globe in mysterious floating ships. But say aliens did pay us a visit, how would we communicate?
In an interview with Wired, Jessica Coon – an associate linguistics professor at McGill University in Montreal, who also consulted on the film – gave some tips as to how we could communicate with an alien species.
“It’s always a good rule”, explained Coon, before getting the to understand that you want to exchange language. “A hard task in monolingual fieldwork situations is getting the other person to understand what you want. If I point at something, I first need you to understand that I want you to give me words.”
Figure Out What You Want To Know
To be able to ask a questions, you don’t just need enough vocabulary to form the question, but also enough linguistic information to be able to understand the answer. “A common starting point might be things that are visible that you can point to,” Coon explained. “You can mime to actions and from there, construct sentences.” This is something we see in ‘Arrival’ with Amy Adams’ & Jeremy Renner’s characters miming actions to help the aliens (or ‘heptapods’, as they’re referred to in the film) understand English.
Context, Context, Context
“When you’re dealing with a new language, context plays a big role in understanding intent,” explains Coon. As an example: ‘Earth’ in English refers to the planet on which we live, but also the ground. To conceptualise this more cohesively, ask yourself: “Why is somebody saying this? What is the context they are saying it in?”
Look For Patterns
“[In human languages] if I figure out that the verb comes at the end of the sentence, I can make some educated guesses about other properties,” says Coon. Also make sure you know what isn’t being said. “I need to know not just what things are possible to say, but what things are impossible to say.”
Blame Biology If It All Goes Belly Up
“We can expect certain patterns with human languages. Our cognition is set up in ways that allows babies to learn languages quickly. But when we encounter an alien language, we don’t know anything about the common properties or cognitive processes.” In layman’s terms? “All bets are off.”