How would we learn an alien language?

Alien writing from the film Arrival.
Alien writing from the film Arrival.

We would probably go about learning an alien language the same way as we learn any unknown language.

This is the main theme of the film Arrival.

The movie explores the difficulties of communication with those who speak an unknown language. Being a Hollywood movie the unknown language in question is written by aliens, however many of the problems that need to be overcome are the same problems faced by terrestrial linguists.

Kate Parker wrote an article for the Institute of Engineering and Technology* entitled “First contact: how linguists use technology to communicate more effectively.”

In her article Kate asks the question: how does technology help us to decipher an ‘alien’ language? How do linguists and anthropologists begin to communicate with a previously un-contacted community of people? To find answers Kate turned to SIL International who produce many software tools and technologies that can assist linguists in their task of learning and analyzing an unwritten language. Larin Adams a linguist, discussed some of the pre-requisites for language analysis between two parties that don’t share a common language. The first requirement is that both parties want to communicate.

Damien Daspit is a software developer and computational linguist at SIL, also currently working at Payap University. His primary role is to design and develop software that assists linguists with analysing and translating minority languages. Commenting on the film Arrival, Damien said, “Despite the fact that Arrival is a science-fiction film about an alien encounter, it is one of the few films that I have seen that presents the real challenges that linguists and translators face when attempting to understand an unstudied language. This presents many challenges to linguists. Native speakers have a difficult time understanding and articulating how their language works. Linguists collect data and then analyse it to discover linguistic processes and structures. SIL has developed software to assist linguists with both the collection and analysis of linguistic data.”

The vast majority of human languages are primarily spoken languages. Many languages have been ‘reduced to writing’. There’s a good reason for describing the process that way; a lot of the information in speech is missing from the written form. Neither tone, speed of delivery or the speaker’s own particular voice are expressed in writing so it’s clear that the written form is only a visual representation of the spoken form.

The fact that most languages are spoken first is also confirmed by considering that there are many oral cultures around the world those whose languages are not yet written. We can very happily communicate orally and without a written form. However the reverse is rare. Only artificial languages and dead languages are written more than they are spoken. Can you think of other categories? It’s the movie industry that has been responsible for creating the best known artificial languages: Klingon from Star Trek, and Na’vi in Avatar.

Damien also drew attention to the great diversity in how human languages are written and the importance that technology plays in dealing with the variety of scripts in use around the world. “We usually think of human languages as a linear arrangement of discrete symbols, where each symbol represents a sound,” he said. “This is true of many western languages that are based on a Latin script, but is not true of languages from many other parts of the world. Chinese characters are arranged linearly like Latin script, but each symbol represents a word or syllable instead of a sound. In Arabic script, the shape of some symbols change based on the context. In Burmese script, the vowel symbol for a syllable can occur above, below, before, after or even completely surround the consonant.”

As Daspit explains: “Sifting through all of the available data can be a daunting task. Our software helps linguists to perform searches, find patterns, and record and test hypotheses. For example, FLEx includes advanced concordance tools that allows linguists to search for complex syntactic patterns in text. Another SIL application, called Phonology Assistant, helps linguists identify sound patterns, which is useful for developing an alphabet for completely oral languages. Once a linguist finds a pattern, they can start to determine what it means.”

So a linguist might use SayMore for maintaining their audio recordings of spoken language. Then these can be transcribed using the international phonetic alphabet with the aid of ELAN, and FieldWorks might then be used to study the phonology of the language and to aid in the development of a practical orthography. Once a few thousand words have been collected a dictionary can be published.  Pathway will take a configured dictionary from the data in FieldWorks and make it ready for publishing as a PDF, e-book or for the web. Dictionary App Builder can be used to make a dictionary app for smart phones.

In conclusion, we would study an alien language in much the way we study any unknown language. Many of the tools we use for studying human language also be used should we ever have an alien language to analyse.

*The IET is one of the world’s largest engineering institutions with over 168,000 members in 150 countries. It is also the most multidisciplinary, reflecting the increasingly diverse nature of engineering today.