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This creature has human-level intelligence, and after spending enough time around humans as a pet, it learns to understand the human language. It isn't hostile and has no wish to attack humans. It hangs around humans because the humans will provide it food, shelter, and companionship.

It's unable to vocalise the sounds needed for human language, so speaking is out of the question. However, it can still read and write the human language and show the humans written messages. Unfortunately, the humans find it very difficult to understand what it has written. What the humans do understand of its writing makes them think this creature is not very intelligent.

Why would the creature not successfully communicate with the humans?

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    $\begingroup$ Both the creature and the human have smartphones. Vocal communication will be inhibited, and they probably won't look at each other either. Indirect communication via twitter may be achievable, however. $\endgroup$ – Starfish Prime Dec 24 '19 at 14:44
  • $\begingroup$ There is a story with premises similar to these - as it happens it has made Stack Exchange: scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/166016/… $\endgroup$ – LSerni Dec 24 '19 at 17:21
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    $\begingroup$ When I was in Kazakhstan and went deep into the countryside, there was zero communication skills between myself and the people I happened by. I was a guest in their country, and they were intelligent, but when I say zero, I mean even hand gestures for buying food, etc. did not work. (Just a comment, not an answer) $\endgroup$ – Mikey Dec 25 '19 at 0:03
  • $\begingroup$ size, if it mouse sized a human will need a magnifying glass to read what it writes, or a custom keyboard to type, and it will need a a custom setup to read a human sized document. $\endgroup$ – John Dec 25 '19 at 1:25
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    $\begingroup$ @byusingoursite - So in the little airstrip it was fine, there was an ATM and I had researched the conversion rate of course - so (1) a common understanding of numbers, even though it was in Cyrillic. Next, I needed to get somewhere and drew a map on my notebook with a lot of arrows to describe where I needed to get - so (2) visual directions. And then, money of course, haha. Accommodation, camping, etc. just followed these sort of fundamentals. $\endgroup$ – Mikey Dec 26 '19 at 15:04
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Physiologically limited writing ability
Although it is fluent in reading and writing, it's "hands" (paws or hooves perhaps?) severely limit it's ability to write legibly. It also must put great effort into writing just short, simple phrases, making sophisticated, intellectual prose impossible. Humans can make out some of the words and guess at others, but falsely assume the caveman verbiage in 20 pt toddler font is a reflection of its lack of intelligence. Having already been written off as unintelligent, there is no perceived value in taking the time to carefully decipher what it is actually trying to say.

Cognitive and social incompatibility
Though it understands human language fluently, it's thought patterns and social cues do not align with our own. It does not respond when spoken to, staring blankly ahead, but when a subject that it understands arises, it immediately begins to write down what it knows. It does not understand the connections that humans have between certain concepts, and regularly forms it's own connections that seem strange and unintelligible to humans. Even the manner in which it describes it's own thoughts is convoluted and illogical from a human perspective. Similarly, it perceives human explanations as twisted, backward and hard to decipher. This has little effect on simple dialog and basic concepts, but the more advanced and technical the subject, the more it appears to have no idea what its talking (well, writing) about.

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    $\begingroup$ A very popular example of social incompability would be Cpt. Picard staring blankly when the Tamarians spoke to him in metaphors - or reading ancient literature, like Greek, with roundabout ways of saying something. One can understand the words, but associations need some work, either because you don't live "in the zeitgeist" or just haven't been exposed to that kind of culture. $\endgroup$ – Jaime Gallego Dec 24 '19 at 19:59
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/after spending enough time around humans as a pet, it learns to understand the human language/

It was taught to read and write by a 4 year old.

reading with dog

The humans keeping company with this alien did not consider it to be very intelligent. Adults are not going to teach a pet how to read and write. But the 4 year old in the house found the alien an interested student and so he played teacher, and gave lessons to the best of his limited ability.

The alien can read and write as well as his teacher. Which is fair at best.

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They don't have "human-level" intelligence. They are actually much smarter. So smart that they are amused by our pathetic attempts to communicate. Thus, they are able to understand us humans fairly well, but have difficulty "thinking down" to our level. Their attempts to do so have all been met with confusion to the point that they have simply given up. They have tried to write us messages, but while a sentence like "frob q$!xly un brok" seems to them like it should be easy to read even for their equivalent of a toddler, all we see is gibberish that looks like nothing more than mimicry.

Now, blend the above with the ideas from thescribe's answer. That is, we are communicating at what feels to your alien(s?) like "a very primitive level", but because of how their brains work, they can't quite figure out the right way to "dumb themselves down" in order to be intelligible to us.

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    $\begingroup$ I immediately think of people on the internet who think it's understandable for them to use a ton of abbreviations which they know the meaning of, but the reader might not. $\endgroup$ – Muuski Dec 26 '19 at 17:51
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Well, here's the obvious reason: it can communicate in Human but, being an alien, its thought processes are so completely different that it cannot get ideas across. For example, while we are able to apply Platonic forms to classify things in our minds, it is quite possible that this alien would be unable to form classifications. As a result, it treats each and every thing as unique. A real-world example is dogs, which will come perfectly fine at home, but completely ignore you when not at home. Since your alien treats everything as unique, and we don't, there is a large amount of confusion when it says "that large oblong grey thing laying on the ground" instead of "boulder". The same thing applies in reverse; it would not understand concepts like "humanity as a whole", as to it each human might as well be a different species.

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    $\begingroup$ an easy facet of this is having drastically different sense organs, if it uses echolocation instead of vision communications will be confusing for quite a long time. $\endgroup$ – John Dec 25 '19 at 19:29
  • $\begingroup$ Good point, @John $\endgroup$ – The Daleks Dec 25 '19 at 20:58
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It's unable to form long-term memories

Although it can "pick up" skills along the way (like learning language, using limbs, sense of familiarity, etc), any direct questions about events which happened more than a few hours in the past (such as "what did you have for breakfast?") will be met with "I don't know" or "I don't remember".

This will leave many humans (or at least in your story the humans around it) as thinking the creature is not very intelligent and is quite "impulsive", because it can't describe it's childhood, it's week, or any such things.

Every thought, idea, or problem will have to be solved as if it was addressing the thought/idea/problem for the first time. It has no memory of solving "2 + 2", although it has the capacity to do the calculation in it's head every time.

This inability to communicate about prior events means when humans say "we explained this to you yesterday", the response being "sorry, I don't remember that" will leave the humans frustrated and thinking the creature isn't very intelligent.

For reference and inspiration, you can do more research into human conditions like anterograde amnesia, especially if the trauma occurred at a young age.

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  • $\begingroup$ Actually, what would happen would be that, when asked "why don't you remember that", the creature will ask "What's 'remember'?". This would immediately give it away. $\endgroup$ – The Daleks Dec 25 '19 at 21:00
  • $\begingroup$ @thescribe - Reinstate Monica if it couldn't remember words how would it understand the question? $\endgroup$ – Muuski Dec 26 '19 at 17:53
  • $\begingroup$ @Muuski : The OP assumes that the creature can remember words, therefore I am also working off of that assumption. $\endgroup$ – The Daleks Dec 26 '19 at 19:32
  • $\begingroup$ @thescribe - Reinstate Monica If it can remember words then why would it ask "What's 'remember'?" $\endgroup$ – Muuski Dec 26 '19 at 21:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Muuski : Because it has no such concept. To flesh out what I was saying, the first time it hears the word "remember" it will ask what that means. When the people it is communicating with give it a definition, it will then ask "What is this 'memory'?" $\endgroup$ – The Daleks Dec 26 '19 at 22:14
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It seems that the answer lies in its inability to vocalize human voice: this means it cannot practice speech by talking to others. For this to happen, see edit below. This has a negative impact on its ability to express itself clearly. After all, writing expresses sounds which we understand as words. To write clearly and coherently, you must first speak so.

Edit: the premises of your question are broad enough to include both scenarios:

  • the alien race may be intelligent enough to develop its ability to read and write and understand human languages. This one and only pet alien, is unfortunate and has [Dysgraphia][1]. This limits its ability to communicate successfully. The symptoms mentioned in the link below seem to provide the symptoms you presented in your question

  • another reason is: who spends time speaking to his pet the way we speak to each other? Would you teach your pet monkey to read and write? The pet may be approached to for reasons other than education. The fact we cannot understand the sounds it makes means we give it less "quality time", let alone teaching him to communicate in one way or another. True, it is smart and still able to learn. However, it is limited to learning whatever it observes, and does the best it can.

[1] https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.understood.org/en/learning-thinking-differences/child-learning-disabilities/dysgraphia/the-difference-between-dysgraphia-and-expressive-language-issues

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    $\begingroup$ Citation needed? If this is true, humans with speech disorders should have the same problem. Do you have references to that effect? $\endgroup$ – Matthew Dec 24 '19 at 18:37
  • $\begingroup$ This explains why so many thought that deaf people were unintelligent. They were also wrong. $\endgroup$ – WGroleau Dec 25 '19 at 7:58
  • $\begingroup$ Deafness would be a much more significant barrier in a mostly illiterate society. If most language is spoken, and absent the sort of educational system we have today with the ability to widely teach alternative forms of communication, a deaf person would be hard-pressed to learn language. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Dec 25 '19 at 16:26
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    $\begingroup$ As the servant of two cats, I can say that they get a mix of "simplified" and "adult" talk... and that's somewhat besides the point, because unless the alien is hanging out with one human that is both a total recluse and never watches television, it will have plenty of opportunities to learn language indirectly. Dysgraphia might be plausible, depending on what the OP means by "can ... write the human language". $\endgroup$ – Matthew Dec 25 '19 at 16:31

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