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Let's say that in the near future we come across an alien civilization not much technologically evolved from ours and we decided to send some people to communicate with them. How could we possibly understand each other if their concept of communication or methods evolved differently? Maybe their speech developed in a way we couldn't understand.

Movies like The Arrival try to depict that, but they go in far different views from this.

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    $\begingroup$ "Eyes in the dark, one moon circles" $\endgroup$ – Mazura Jan 9 at 3:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Mazura A reference to TNG Star-Trek ? Specifically Hydrogen I would assume :) $\endgroup$ – AndyF Jan 9 at 7:45
  • $\begingroup$ There was a short story about aliens that came to Earth. Humans tried all sorts of communication methods - speaking, singing, music, writing, dancing, etc. but the aliens finally left without saying anything. The end has the aliens declare that humans seem to be too primitive to bother with, since they don't even communicate by smell. $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Jan 9 at 9:14
  • $\begingroup$ Have a look at "Omnilinugal" by H. Beam Piper. $\endgroup$ – JRE Jan 9 at 13:49
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    $\begingroup$ @tbrookside, the layout of the periodic table we use is pretty much an accident of history. There are a number of alternative layouts that make at least as much sense. $\endgroup$ – Mark Jan 18 at 3:45
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Communication is universal so long as you are using universal concepts

Communication, when you boil it down, is merely the exchange of information. And all species exchange information in some fashion, and the question just is how. So the first step to communicating with aliens is to figure out how they exchange information. It may not be verbally, it may be visually, but that's step one. Step two is to exchange universal concepts. Now, there is a chance that they won't have some of the same concepts that we have, but there will be concepts that they will have to have, i.e. the basics of math like numbers, or the basics of physics like movement. Very basic grammar structure will exist too, such as the concept of word classifications if for now other reason than you need them to distinguish words. Once you've started on the most basic level, you slowly move up, exchanging words with the alien species and gradually build up to the more complex concepts.

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  • $\begingroup$ Sentient beings similar to us will have the ability to recognize patterns. So yes, universal concepts of physics and math would be our first talk face-to-face with them. $\endgroup$ – Marcello Fabrizio Jan 9 at 2:45
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    $\begingroup$ There was a plan to write a giant Pythagorean equation on the Sahara desert at one point to prove we're intelligent to E.T. visitors. (Because we were concerned that the rest of civilization might not do the job, I guess.) $\endgroup$ – Halfthawed Jan 9 at 2:51
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    $\begingroup$ IF their communication is visual or aural, and both sides are sufficiently motivated, this will work. $\endgroup$ – WGroleau Jan 9 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ If the way they communicate with each other is to modulate the ratio of ammonia to methane in what they breathe out, then it's going to take a while for us to work it out. $\endgroup$ – Michael Kay Jan 9 at 18:16
  • $\begingroup$ Physics is misspelled as physcis. This is too short for me to correct. I will delete this comment upon an edit. $\endgroup$ – CGCampbell Jan 9 at 19:50
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Pretty much the same way that explorers talked to people from faraway lands: Use a bunch of easily identifiable objects as a base, with both species telling the other their word for that thing, then use that as a base for further communication.

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    $\begingroup$ I agree on the whole, first things first: My name - Pete, your name - onweoifbh. Then comes rock, dirt, air, fire... Maybe two rocks, three rocks. Sure Halfthawed's answer is true - but it comes after the basics. $\endgroup$ – BLT-Bub Jan 9 at 4:00
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    $\begingroup$ Yes it should work but you would need to keep a very open mind and be on the lookout for fundamentally different approaches to things. For example they might use ultra sound rather than anything in our vocal range, they might echo locate rather than see visible light and the “obvious” Cartesian co-ordinate system we use might be replaced by polar co-ordinate system starting in the middle and spiraling out. All could be dealt with but it would need great care. The incident with the dove in Mars Attack comes to mind LOL. $\endgroup$ – Slarty Jan 9 at 9:45
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    $\begingroup$ I'm an alien. I hold out a cup of water and say "&*($#" (and that's if you're lucky enough that I use audible speech). Did I say "water"? Maybe I said "cup", or offered you a drink, or asked if you are thirsty... and that's just the obvious things you might get from another human. Who knows how aliens think? $\endgroup$ – Matthew Jan 9 at 16:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Matthew That is the same problem that the explorers had. I am not saying that this method is error-proof, just that it is the best option. Also, check out the second paragraph of Euphoric's answer. $\endgroup$ – Marvin the Paranoid Android Jan 9 at 16:54
  • $\begingroup$ What made that easier is that they were communicating with members of their own species. With aliens, there might not even be the same channel of communication. What if they communicate with pheromones? Or ultrasound? Or some other physical phenomena as of yet unknown to us? Even in this case, communication might be possible after a lot of time and research, but only if they are individual animal-style beings. If they are anything else, we might not even detect each other as intelligent beings, or even as life forms. $\endgroup$ – vsz Jan 10 at 7:17
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Many point to various sci-fi stories of aliens being so alien that we would be completely unable to communicate with them. I would argue that those are highly pessimistic views. We have many senses and some of the senses are so good, that they evolved independently multiple times. The aliens would also inhabit same physical world as we and we are currently really good at measuring many quantities of objects. So they would be as well. It is also heavily advantageous to have multiple senses, as they fulfill different purposes and provide different information, so we can assume that aliens will too have multiple senses. I would like to give this conclusion : There is high probability, that if we were to find aliens, that there would be lots of overlap between our senses. There might be differences in sensitivity or perceived "frequencies", but those would not prevent effective communication.

The second question is that of establishing a baseline communication. This is heavily dependent on circumstances of the first contact. It would be different to learn to communicate if we go in guns blazing. If instead we go in peacefully and be patient, we will find patterns in their behavior or communications that would give us clues in what they perceive. And we can assume they would do the same. We might start with simple gestures and moving objects around to communicate, and only much later learn how to communicate directly. And if they too wish to communicate, we and they will assume that if there is something weird being communicated, we can assume that it is merely a misunderstanding, not a threat or a a declaration of war.

Actually, the most probable form of first contact would be a radio communication. It is really good middle-man that, if they are same level of technology as us, would allow us to quickly establish communication without having to decode the soft biological parts. There have been many different attempts at creating signals and messages that would allow aliens to establish basic communication with us. They start really simple and use basic mathematics to build a more complicated grammar and structures based on logic and immutable natural laws.

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  • $\begingroup$ Im not sure how radio would ever bootstrap itself. You can see a few patterns, great, but that's kind of it. How would you ever get to "can we visit your planet on thursday" from first principles. On the other hand, pointing then making a slightly different gurgling noise (or light show, or tentacle movement") allows for bootstrapping because pointing (or moving, or just looking at, or illuminating) gives you some context. $\endgroup$ – Richard Tingle Jan 9 at 23:09
  • $\begingroup$ @RichardTingle en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… , example being : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lincos_(artificial_language) $\endgroup$ – Euphoric Jan 10 at 5:42
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I think we need to find a common ground for communication. That means we have to watch a "thing" from the same perspective. e.g Food to us, human beings, might be very different from theirs, and the way we consume food as we know it, might be also different for them. One would eat the food through his mouth, but species that consume energy in some other forms (light, heat, etc), might just use some other processes/mechanisms. Image communicate this process between two species that do it in a very different way. It is hard to find a way to communicate the same idea, without finding the common "ground" which, in this case, is "food".

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  • $\begingroup$ Even then, imagine explaining that when we ingest food, our stomach's acids digest the food, for it to go to the intestines to ingested so that the glucose can go to the mitochondria to be transformed in energy, to a being that might not have mitochondria at all . $\endgroup$ – Marcello Fabrizio Jan 10 at 2:32
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah that's the point: you can't explain to a blind man what is it like to have sight. It is quite of a challenge to find common grounds with someone or something that you are not sure about, what level of intelligence it has, if it has, how it works/lives etc $\endgroup$ – n1kkou Jan 11 at 8:02
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Let's play devil's advocate.

For many of the arguments in other answers, one can substitute "aliens" for "animals". We live all in the same planet, and yet with most animals (and plants) we cannot communicate. And aliens come from another planet (or gas cloud). So expecting communication is a bit hasty.

On the other hand, we can communicate with some animals (gorillas, chimpanzees, dogs, ...), and explorers did some communication. That points to some options.

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    $\begingroup$ The problem with animals is not about communication channel, but about lack of intelligence. We do communicate with plenty of animals. Just that the messages they tell us are often too simple for any coherent dialogue. $\endgroup$ – Euphoric Jan 9 at 13:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Euphoric But that's part of my point: if you can't communicate, how do you know they lack intelligence? They are different, with different interests and priorities and worldview. Aliens even more so. $\endgroup$ – Pablo H Jan 9 at 13:58
  • $\begingroup$ @Euphoric (By the way, can you give any interesting example besides the ones I mentioned? I'm curious.) $\endgroup$ – Pablo H Jan 9 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ There are many hallmarks of intelligence other than communication. Tool use. Big groups. Etc.. $\endgroup$ – Euphoric Jan 9 at 14:00
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    $\begingroup$ For example. Lets take dogs. We can tell how it feels from it's body language and expression. Barred teeth and growling = agression. Whimpering and tail down = fear and submission. Those are form of communication. And there are studies about dogs being able to understand human expressions and body language too. $\endgroup$ – Euphoric Jan 9 at 14:03
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Our brain is wired to use languages like those on Earth. Even completely unrelated languages like Arab and English are built upon the same elements: nouns, verbs, conjunctions, etc. These cultures were isolated during their evolution and the only point in common is the brain that gave rise to them, proving that language structure is heavily dependent on brain hardware.

We can safely assume extraterrestrials evolved completely different from us. I mean, their likely different physical-chemical environment pushed evolution towards a different brain-like structure. Thus, symbolic (spoken or written) communication with aliens may not be possible.

Though the movie The Arrival brilliantly explored the subject, the Heptapod language is just like Mandarin with cyclic ideograms, still very human. Communicating with aliens would likely be possible only at the abstract level of ideas, not involving languages and using some device akin to the Babel Fish in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Of course, like depicted in Carl Sagan's Contact, aliens and us can develop a common symbolic base from universal truths like the transition frequency of hydrogen, the absolute zero temperature, the gravity constant, 1+1=2, PI number, etc. But how do we pass along high level concepts such as love?

Another dimension of the communication problem is the realm of the personal experience. On Earth, giving or taking small variations, everyone eats, walks, hears, sees, etc. In Matrix, one the charcters asks "How do the machines know the taste of chicken?". He meant that since the machines don't eat, how could they know the concept of chicken taste so they could correctly recreate it in the neurointeractive interface? We can see the Machines as an alien race that evolved with a completely different body rendering completely different experience. I mean: our life experience dictates how our language convey meaning: like Neil deGrasse Tyson in Cosmos: we still say the sun rises. There are many beautiful poems exploring the concept of "rising sun". But you can imagine that an alien race living in a planet tidally locked to its parent star will see that as utter nonsense.

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  • $\begingroup$ Uh... it's "Arrival", not "The Arrival". There is no "the" in the title. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Jan 9 at 16:23
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Scientists have tried contacting extraterrestrials with a number of bespoke linguistic systems. But we might be better off using our own languages.

This custom symbolic system begins by introducing ET to numerals, and then progresses to more complex topics like human biology and the planets in our solar system. An earlier version of the language was first sent into space in 1999 and again in 2003 as part of the Cosmic Call messages—a crowd-sourced interstellar messaging project that marked the first serious attempt at interstellar communication since Carl Sagan and Frank Drake sent the Arecibo message into space 25 years earlier.

All of these formal messaging attempts have taken basically the same approach: Teach numerals and basic arithmetic first. But as some recent insights in neurolinguistics suggest, it might not be the best way to greet our alien neighbors.

The world’s first interstellar communication system, the lingua cosmica, or Lincos, set the tone for all subsequent attempts by placing basic math at its core. Designed by the Dutch mathematician Hans Freudenthal in 1960, Lincos inspired several other mathematicians and scientists to try their hand at designing extraterrestrial languages. Each system is ultimately an attempt at solving a remarkably complex problem: How do you communicate with an intelligent entity you know nothing about?

The question gets at the nature of intelligence itself. Humans are the only species on Earth endowed with advanced mathematical ability and a fully fledged faculty of language, but are these hallmarks of intelligence or human idiosyncrasies? Is there an aspect of intelligence that is truly universal?

Scientists and mathematicians have grappled with these questions for centuries. As the Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner once observed, mathematics is “unreasonably effective” at describing the natural universe, which has led a significant contingent of mathematicians to conclude that math is baked into the fabric of reality. From this perspective, mathematics isn’t something produced by the human mind so much as something the human mind discovers.

Most interstellar communication systems were designed around this conclusion. The goal isn’t to teach ETs about addition and subtraction—presumably they know as much if they can build a telescope to receive the message. Instead, these systems teach ETs about the way we code numbers as symbols. Then they can build up to more complex ideas.

It’s an elegant solution to a difficult problem, but Lincos still rests on the assumption that an ET is “human-like in its mental state,” as Freudenthal once conceded. But if ET does in fact think like a human, does that alien also have some kind of human-like language?

That was where Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy, two of the progenitors of artificial intelligence, landed after they became interested in interstellar communication. Both Minsky and McCarthy had a deep interest in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, which they realized had a lot in common with their own search for artificial intelligence. As Minsky argued on several occasions, ET is likely to have language because language is an ideal solution to the fundamental problems faced by any intelligent species—namely constraints on time, energy, and resources.

A deeper question is whether ET’s language will be similar to our own. In other words, whether it will also obey the universal grammar, the hierarchical, recursive structure that linguist Noam Chomsky has argued is the deep structure common to all human languages. Although languages tend to be analogized as a form of software running on the hardware of our brain, recent work in neurolinguistics suggests that language—and the universal grammar—is actually an expression of the hardware itself.

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  • $\begingroup$ if you're quoting a wired article, you should say so. $\endgroup$ – ths Jan 9 at 19:16
  • $\begingroup$ Yes I combined my own knowledge and study from wired article. $\endgroup$ – Wasif Hasan Jan 10 at 8:48

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