Xenolinguistics

Could We Learn E.T.'S Language? (Last Part)

English

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 Linguistics. Her teaching and research interests include phonetics, applied phonology, psycholinguistics, speech production (especially slips of the tongue), language preservation, braille and xenolinguistics.

Here comes the zillion-dollar question:

If humans encounter one, would we be able to learn an alien language?

OK, because I can't actually answer that question, I'm going to try to distract you with some other clarifying questions and link to a bunch of additional reading material so that, by the time you get to the end of this, you won't feel too bad that I had nothing definitive to say.

What do you mean by “encounter”?...

Could we learn E.T.'s language? (2nd part)

English

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 Linguistics. Her teaching and research interests include phonetics, applied phonology, psycholinguistics, speech production (especially slips of the tongue), language preservation, braille and xenolinguistics.

Here's a little linguistics game for you. Can you match the word for "fish" with the language it comes from? The words here are written in faux-phonetic transcription—kind of what you might do if you hear a word but don't know how to spell it (i.e. they are not all spelled the way a literate speaker of the language would spell them).

balik, i’a, machli, pes, riba, sakana, yu

Chinese, Hawaiian, Hindi, Japanese,

Russian, Spanish, Turkish

Answers below; if you get 4 out of 7 right, feel pleased with yourself.

Could we learn E.T.'s language?

English

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?”