Could we learn E.T.'s language?


Author:  Sheri Wells-Jensen. 

Dr. Wells-Jensen is an Associate Professor and Co-Director of the ESOL Program at Bowling Green State University. She also coordinates BGSU's Minor in LinguisticsHer teaching and research interests include phonetics, applied phonology, psycholinguistics, speech production (especially slips of the tongue), language preservation, braille and xenolinguistics.

For the next time you are on a long trip, I recommend this linguist's "car game".  Go through the alphabet, giving the name of a language for each letter: Arabic, Bulgarian, Chinese, Dutch, English, French, German, Hawaiian, Icelandic, ... When you get to the end, start over. No repeats allowed.

Given that there are around 7,000 languages spoken on Earth today, you could theoretically go around several times before you run out.*

I offer you this to give some perspective on this question, which I get asked every time I say that I have taught a course in Xenolinguistics:

“If there are intelligent beings on other planets, would we be able to learn their language?”

As if they'd have just one ... Unless all the beings on their planet are linked into some kind of hive mind, their language situation could be very much like our own.

And here's what we have:

•    7,000 languages are divided unequally among 7,000,000,000 people, some languages (like Chinese, Spanish, and English) having a disproportionately large number of speakers (about 1 in 8 Earthlings speaks Chinese, for example). If you could speak the ten most widely spoken languages, you would be able to communicate with around 45 percent of your fellow Earthlings.

•    The total number of languages is decreasing. Like little spaceships being sucked in by a black hole, the less-widely-spoken languages are being swept up. It takes a critical mass of people with sufficient cultural and economic autonomy to maintain a language, and if that doesn't exist, the speakers of those languages eventually adopt one of the dominant languages in their area. Within the next century, it is expected that 90 percent of the languages now spoken will disappear, leaving only the most resilient 700 or so alive.

•    There is no reason to suspect that this number will go below 700 or so.  Widely-spoken languages are probably here to stay. English, for example, is going nowhere, and if you live in an English speaking country today, your great-great-great-great-grandchildren will certainly carry out their business in English.

Will we be able to speak the language of an intelligent alien race? The good news is that we'll have more than one shot at this.  Depending on how similar their languages are to each other and to ours (both subjects for future entries), we may have several hundred chances at it.

So go about happily playing the linguist's car game, knowing that somewhere, on some other planet, other intelligent beings may be doing their version of the same thing!

* Quechua, Quinqui, Qaqet, Quinalt, Qiang, Queyu, Zulu, Zapotec, Zoque, Zinza, Zhaba, Zo (You’re welcome).