Wednesday, March 18, 2009

When you have no Translator (or babel fish)

What do you do if you're confronted with an unfamiliar language, and you have no translator? No language talk-box, no babel fish, whatever your device happens to be.

Well, if you're dealing with seriously different parameters, like underwater communication, or nonhuman speech sounds, you've got a tough task on your hands. Sheila Finch (author of The Guild of Xenolinguists) has argued that it would be next to impossible for us to decipher alien communication in rel life - and I'm inclined to agree on a general level. But let's say we've accepted the science fictional conceit that communication can take place, and should - in that case I think it might be useful to think about what the process of language learning would be like.

There's always the solution of the orphaned alien who speaks his own language yet grows up with humans and learns theirs. That kind of solution is simple, and conveniently hides the yucky details in a place we trust at the same time we don't understand it: the language-learning "black box" of the human (or alien) brain.

But if you've got first exposure, the process is different - and full of opportunities for writers.

Generally a person learning an unknown language will start by trying to associate strings of sounds with their appropriate contexts. The classic example used in a lot of science fictional settings is the one where people point to objects and utter names for them.

Some of you may have seen that Star Trek scene with Counselor Troi where she's talking about the difficulty of determining what an alien says while pointing to a cup of coffee (or something that looks like it). The rough idea, since I don't have the scene itself at my fingertips, is that the word uttered may not be "coffee" or "cup." It might instead be "brown," or "hot," or "enjoy." Or possibly (my ideas) it could be "mine," or "gift for a visitor."

A word, phrase or other utterance comes with a social context, and can never be entirely free of social significance. It can be fun to brainstorm the different kinds of meanings an object might have, since for every possible meaning there's another possibility for misunderstanding. Other posts of mine that relate to this are But what does it mean?(point of view) and Considering the Culture in Objects.

A linguist attempting to parse a new language using technological tools - but not a translator - might begin by making recordings in as many sensory modalities as possible. This would allow them to take time not available to a person who is simply listening. The recordings would allow the linguist to consider observable aspects of the physical situation, and possibly some elements of the social as well (depending on the number of individuals speaking, their dress and behavior, etc.) Breaking speech into words is essentially a process of looking for repeated patterns of sounds and trying to find commonalities across the contexts in which they are used. This goes also for smaller elements of meaning (morphemes).

I thought I'd also add a few notes on language processing.

When we listen to foreign language sounds, the ones that are easiest to capture are the ones at the beginning and end of the utterance.

There is a tendency among many human languages for the subject of the sentence to come first; this isn't always true, but English speakers and speakers of many other languages that follow this pattern will tend to make guesses based on this assumption.

Also, though we don't do it consciously, our brains have an excellent ability to track the frequency of different language items - that is, to say which sounds or words are more common than others.

This barely scratches the surface in terms of the challenges of learning languages the hard way, and the tools people use to deal with them - but I hope you may at least find some interesting ideas here.


  1. Have you seen Galaxy Quest? In that movie, the aliens have been monitoring human television broadcasts for decades before first contact and have deciphered human language by doing that. Assuming they knew how to decode the audio and video into actual visual and audio information (another science fictional conceit).
    Do you think that method of learning a language would actually work, given enough time?

  2. And if it did, would the aliens all talk to us using phrases taken from commercials, sitcoms and action movies?

    And, as in Galaxy Quest, would they understand the difference between fiction and fact?

  3. Yes, I've seen Galaxy Quest. That was a hilarious movie. I agree about the science-fictional conceit of being able to decode TV. It requires certain assumptions: first, that it is possible for aliens to pick up TV signals (and I'm not at all sure about that; the Analog SF guys would know for certain); second, aliens would have be able to display the visual and auditory information appropriately. They would also have to be able to recognize us as people and our language as language. Even assuming all these things line up, problems could arise from the local cultural significance of objects, speech, or people. Furthermore, it's not particularly effective to learn a language under conditions where you can't make your own utterances and test people's responses to them. The question of whether they'd recognize fiction and fact is also totally up in the air.

    Which is to say, I guess, that it seems highly unlikely to me. On the other hand, the conceit makes for a really funny movie.

  4. A friend of my parents, who came to this country as a boy, a WWII refugee and lived in, I'm not kidding, Peoria, always claimed he learned English from watching John Wayne movies. It certainly seemed to work for him. And, I don't recall him going around calling everybody Pilgrim. *grin*

    On the other hand, it seems to me there is some precedent here. Consider first contact between Europeans and, say, Chinese. Surely neither party immediately recognized the noises being made by the other as speech/language. I must confess that Chinese sounds like noise rather than language to me. How on earth did that first contact go? One can, presumably, find historical accounts. Such accounts would be of inestimable value to a writer faced with first contact.

    Robert Silverburg had a "Reflections" column in a recent Asimov's about desyphering(sp?) Cuneaform, also potentially very valuable.

    The lessons of the past are not always applicable to new situations, but surely, knowing how similar situations were dealt with at the least gives a person a basis to build on.

  5. I think the European/Chinese first contact would be much simpler than the human/alien first contact (though certainly still very difficult). First, they're the same species, with the same visual receptors, same language centers in the brain (though they were trained differently by their cultures), same appendages, same number of fingers, etc...
    Both sides in this case should realize that the sounds the other is making are language, as both sides have presumably come across foreign languages or dialects before, and each side would show other signs of intelligence--buildings, vehicles, etc...

  6. And the video decoding thing makes me laugh--I can't even play certain MPEG video files on my computer unless Windows has installed the proper codecs!

    Even funnier (on a slight tangent) is in Independence Day, when they take out the aliens by using a computer virus. I can't even run the same program between Mac and Windows but this guy can write a computer virus that targets alien software? Wow!

  7. By the time of first contact between Europeans and Chinese (around Marco Polo's time), it was already possible to find a series of lingua francas across Eurasia and translators who could work between them: Latin, Greek, Arabic, Mongolian and Chinese. In addition, as travel was so difficult, it was quite easy to learn by immersion simply in the process of travelling.

    The more difficult contact, I believe, would have been between the Spanish and the Caribs or Kalinago, where there was no chance of a shared language (unless legends of Basque contact with the New World are true). Still, not as hard as the alien contact mentioned by Mr. Steffen.

  8. Thanks for the comments, guys. While I'm not sure that learning by immersion was "easy" for travelers, it would certainly be very likely for there to be well-traveled individuals who had spent time living in these various areas. So while the traders and voyagers might not all spend enough time to pick up the languages, they could enlist the services of one of these uniquely qualified translators.

    I would note that while the people who heard these languages for the first time probably thought the people spoke gibberish (this was a very common view), I find it hard to believe they didn't realize it was a language.

    Learning from TV is possible - but learning to speak entirely on the basis of TV is not. One of the defining characteristics of language is its flexibility. And one of the key parts of learning to speak a language is actually speaking it to a listener who can then respond - engaging in a process of testing newfound skills. I've watched TV in foreign languages, and you can definitely supplement your vocabulary across contexts this way, but it's challenging. The restricted nature of the social contexts is one of the reasons why TV alone is just not enough.

  9. Another amusing tidbit: In Russian to this day, the word for the German language is the word for dumb, mute. On first hearing German, the Russians came to the conclusion that the speaker was unable to speak.

    Yes, the analogy of Old World peoples encountering New World peoples is much better than the one I suggested.

  10. Catreona,

    That's funny - but never underestimate the power of insult. I have a strong suspicion that insult was at work rather than error in that naming choice. Don't forget that the word "barbarian" came from the idea that those people said nothing but "bar-bar-bar-bar"! :-)