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It is the age of exploration. Intrepid European colonists have come to settle the Americas amidst a storm of interest over the wondrous materials that may be found in the New World. Unfortunately for them, the indigenous have spent thousands of years cultivating their magic, distinguishing themselves in appearance, thought, language, and most severely: power. By the time of Christopher Columbus, the gulf has become so wide that the indigenous cannot even recognize people from the Old World as rational beings - regarding them instead as curiosities and pests beneath consideration.

These unfortunate circumstances have stymied European expansion into the continent, and unable to meaningfully combat the indigenous, the colonial powers have instead sought to broker communication between their peoples in the hopes that the use of familiar language will elevate themselves in their eyes. This is no easy task, given the usual methods for learning learning language through immersion are infeasible; intrepid linguists must observe from a distance lest they be discovered and potentially killed.

Altogether, the question stands: is this possible? Can a dedicated force of 16th century linguists learn an alien language through observation alone, given any sort of contact is likely to result in death? On what sort of timescale can this be achieved? I will accept any answer giving a historical example of any language having been successfully studied (grammar, lexicon, etc. to fluency) this way at any point in history.

Misc.:

  • Capturing indigenous is impossible
  • It is possible to remain hidden within earshot of the indigenous
  • Infiltrating indigenous camps, towns, and other kinds of settlement or buildings is very dangerous
  • Acquiring indigenous artifacts is incredibly difficult, even if they have been abandoned
  • For simplicity's sake, we can imagine there's only one language
  • The indigenous language is not too far removed from real ones
  • The colonists are fielding technology roughly in line with what their real counterparts had
  • The colonists are allowed to have anachronistic culture or knowledge, however
  • Europe is desperate for successful colonies; the wondrous materials native to the continent are as valuable to them as modern technology would be to Rome
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    $\begingroup$ Boy, imagine writing this stuff, but reversing the races. Seems like a horrible idea. $\endgroup$
    – Davor
    Oct 6 at 13:01
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    $\begingroup$ @smallobsession I think you missed jmoreno's point. It's not that you don't want to colonize them, it's that you can't. How are you going to conquer a culture with armor that can easily stop your biggest weapons, while their own weapons can kill your entire armies in an instant? $\endgroup$
    – Ryan_L
    Oct 6 at 16:02
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    $\begingroup$ @smallobsession - go ahead and write a story where a bunch of black africans are so primitive they can't even be recognized as rational people, and see what happens. But for your sake, do it anonymously. $\endgroup$
    – Davor
    Oct 6 at 16:10
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    $\begingroup$ @smallobsession - aren't you just proving my point now? What is inflammatory in my comment besides the race swap? $\endgroup$
    – Davor
    Oct 7 at 8:08
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    $\begingroup$ @smallobsession - you're proving my point by calling my post "inflammatory, ... emotionally charged, condescending towards Africans" just because I did a race swap. That's exactly what I claimed would happen, and you demonstrated that I was right. You do you, guy, and good luck with that. I have to no horse in this race. $\endgroup$
    – Davor
    Oct 7 at 11:01
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The real-life process corresponding to the requirements is learning a foreign language by watching TV shows in that language (without subtitles). This ranges from trivially easy if the foreign language is closely related to a language that the learner already knows (e.g., a Romanian learning Italian from watching La piovra on Bulgarian TV), to relatively easy if the languages are closely related but not very (e.g., the same Romanian watching Escrava Isaura and Avenida Paulista on the same Balgarska televizia), to somewhat difficult if the two languages are only distantly related (e.g., learning enough Bulgarian to follow football commentary of live matches), to very difficult but far from impossible if the target language is completely alien (e.g., a Romanian attempting to watch Hungarian TV).

In the 1980s, Romanian state television had degenerated to such a great extent that it went on air only two hours per day, and those were dedicated to Communist propaganda. This created an environment where everybody who could watched TV shows from neighbouring countries; Bulgaria in the south, Yugoslavia in the south-east, Hungary in the west; and even Soviet TV was watched in the east.

The point is that humans have a built-in ability to learn foreign languages. This ability is highest in childhood, but it never goes away completely; and moreover, if instead of casually watching foreign TV shows the learners do have an actual incentive, the results will be even better and the learning faster.

As for formal examples, we do now know several dead languages which were desciphered entirely by closely examining ancient texts; for example, Hittite.

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    $\begingroup$ @smallobsession: Bad grammar never stopped anybody. As the saying goes, broken English is the international language. Have you never bought a cheap and functional device made in China with an instruction manual written in sort-of English? Or, for that matter, do you think that the Iberians, the Gauls, the Dacians and so on ever learned proper Latin grammar? (Fun factoid: archaeologists have found a cache of honest for-real letters written in sort-of Latin by a Greek of Alexandria, who had joined the Roman army and was proud of his language skills; so we know how bad it was.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 4 at 16:35
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    $\begingroup$ Another example is Dutch and German. In the 60s, 70s and into the 80's Dutch TV was limited to just 2 channels. A lot of Dutch people got a basic knowledge of German just by watching the German channels (3 to 6 depending on location). Of course Dutch and German are closely related. I only got German at school from age 13, but before that my vocabulary of German curse words was probably bigger than my Dutch repertoire. German Krimis (detective series) were (and still are) high quality and very popular and had a lot of colorful language. $\endgroup$
    – Tonny
    Oct 4 at 18:15
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Bad grammar ain't never stopped nobody! $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    Oct 6 at 10:37
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    $\begingroup$ @user253751: "Ain't" for "<auxiliary_verb> not" is perfectly good grammar; but unfortunately it is good grammar in a low status register, or a low prestige dialect or sociolect. The use of this form does not identify the speaker as lacking grammatical knowledge, it identifies the speaker as being low class or belonging to a low status group. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 6 at 12:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Davor: Ain't and double negatives have nothing to do with the English dialect stereotypically associated with Americans of sub-Saharan African descent. They are perfectly normal grammatical features of several English dialects and sociolects which have nothing to do with black Americans. (And, generally speaking. There are many forms of good English, but they do not all have the same prestige. There is a standard form of the language; or, in the case of English, more than one -- English is pluricentric. Then there are geographical dialects, registers of varying formality, and so on.) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 6 at 13:17
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Some people in real life speak Klingon. There is even a popular story in the internet about a couple who only had Klingon as a common language between them, and they married.

Elvish is also a con language and some people speak it.

Even The Elder Scroll's Dov language has some enthusiasts.

I doubt that Tolkien and the producers for Star Trek and Skyrim were giving Zoom classes. Somebody had to reverse engineer each one before people could use them.

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    $\begingroup$ Klingon, Sindarin, and Quenya all had extensive documentation available to fans aside from just what appeared in the primary media. And Skyrim's language is only slightly removed from a straight cipher of English. None of those are really comparable situations. $\endgroup$ Oct 4 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ @LogabR.Kearsley Still people using that documentation were observing it rather than getting taught by a teacher. $\endgroup$ Oct 4 at 16:02
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, but "observing" documentation intended to explain how the language works is far, far different from simply observing the language in use with no explanation. $\endgroup$ Oct 4 at 18:50
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    $\begingroup$ Not "documentation" in the sense of "documents written in the language" - "documentation" in the sense of dictionaries. Klingon as a complete language first appears in the 3rd Star Trek film, and the person who devised it for them (Marc Okrand) published The Klingon Dictionary the next year. Tolkien may not have had Zoom but he discussed the workings of his Elvish languages at length in appendices and footnotes, and many of the examples of Elvish in Lord of the Rings appear with English translations. $\endgroup$
    – A. B.
    Oct 5 at 10:58
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    $\begingroup$ On Elvish: legend goes that Tolkien wrote the LotR books as a vessel for his conlangs. $\endgroup$
    – Beefster
    Oct 6 at 15:40
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Is it possible to learn a language entirely by observation?

Yes, mere observation can be enough to learn a language... but that method will absolutely require much more time to do so than traditional immersion.

For example, there are plenty of anecdotal examples of children who seem basically mute until suddenly showing the ability to speak in full sentences. Usually, though, those full sentences come at a time that lags years behind the normal development of their peers who've progressed through basic words, to broken sentences, to simple sentences, quite some time ago.

There might be a bigger barrier to deal with, however...

"... regarding them instead as curiosities and pests beneath consideration..."

"... any sort of contact is likely to result in death..."

This is perhaps the trickiest bottleneck for your story/setting; depending on where you draw the line for "enough fluency to not be killed".

If something like "We, a Lesser People, ask your Great People to teach us your wonderful language!" is sufficient to pique their curiosity, then you can probably reach that level in a relatively short time frame (maybe a year or so, more depending on the language's particularities and difficulties). And from there, they can throw a kindergarten-level teacher at your explorers and start a more typical language-immersion process.

If you need to come out strong with a fancy spiel in full-legalese like "On behalf of King X of Y, heir to the Z of Q, conqueror of the R, Lord over the protectorate of S, long may he reign, we, his hired explorers, beseech thee to parlay on the matter of his vassals being deigned vermin in your lands and holdings, etc. ..." then that will be much harder and take substantially more time to develop. The particular thorniness of the issue being that you just won't have access to much of that vocabulary when eavesdropping on farmers near the outskirts of civilization. So, not only would you have to sneak further into dangerous territory to learn the important stuff... but you'd probably need a significant time investment to learn just the basics beforehand to understand any of the more complicated stuff by building off of context clues.

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  • $\begingroup$ Very interesting idea with mutism! I will have to do some reading to verify, since I only know about it in passing. As for the proficiency, the former would be more than sufficient evidence in the setting I intend, although I lean towards higher proficiency due to the fact plans rarely survive first contact with the enemy, so anyone in that role may not have the luxury of being able to use a script. $\endgroup$ Oct 4 at 19:41
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    $\begingroup$ On reflection, it occurred to me that the situations aren't as comparable as first thought; parents will "baby-talk" for their children, pointing out objects and actions clearly. Even a mute adult would have the benefit of being drug around and gestured at, giving additional context that native speakers would rarely provide eachother. $\endgroup$ Oct 4 at 20:15
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    $\begingroup$ @smallobsession You're right that the mute-child example is more of a one-way immersion rather than a non-immersion. However, the example still holds somewhat on account of the fact that the "full sentences" the child speaks aren't just parrotings of the baby talk the parents attempted to teach - and instead those sentences show an absorption and synthesis of the many examples of speech the child might have heard even when not being directly addressed. While it is true your linguists won't be spoon-fed basic nouns and verbs, the do have the luxury of understanding language as a high concept. $\endgroup$ Oct 4 at 20:35
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    $\begingroup$ @smallobsession And the colonists will not observe the natives teaching their children?? $\endgroup$ Oct 6 at 0:35
  • $\begingroup$ @LorenPechtel I am kicking myself for not having realized that. Very good point. $\endgroup$ Oct 6 at 8:48
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In many ways, this is what the Generative Pre-trained Transformer series of AI projects is doing in practice. Feed the algorithm an incredibly large body of English text, and it leans how to converse in English.

While not exactly what you are looking for, and doesn't really answer if it is possible for a human, it does show the task is in and of itself possible.

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  • $\begingroup$ Not a bad suggestion, but this assumes that the AI possesses an understanding of English and not "just" the ability to give an appropriate response in the manner of the Chinese Room. This remains an unsolved philosophical question, so it either option is possible. $\endgroup$ Oct 5 at 17:11
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome Chuu, this really might have been better posted as a comment than an answer. Please take our tour and refer to the help center for guidance as to our ways. Enjoy worldbuilding. $\endgroup$ Oct 5 at 18:21
  • $\begingroup$ They should put to work on recognizing the dolphin language. $\endgroup$ Oct 9 at 19:19
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If your idea was the old science fiction cliche idea that an alien civilization can learn our languages just by watching TV shows I should say that no, you can not learn a language entirely by observation.

But I remembered a good movie: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_13th_Warrior where Antonio Banderas character learned Vikings language: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Varangians just by observation.

In the movie, Banderas is a noble Arabic language speaking Muslim. I was told by an old English language teacher of mine that Arabic speaking people have facility to learn foreign languages. So, may be, there was cases people can learn a language entirely by observation.

Any way, if you are dropped into a place where no one knows your language, the written system is totally different (think on Japanese or Hebrew) and you are left there forever, well, you ought to learn your new home language entirely by observation:).

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  • $\begingroup$ (1) Muslin is a fabric. Banderas played a Muslim. (2) The last paragraph of the answer refers to a method of learning foreign languages known as immersion. It works very very well. The question is explicitly asking for a situation where it is not possible to interact with speakers of the target language. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Oct 5 at 9:05
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you point my typo. I answered the question in the very first paragraph! I write about an old cliche used by bad science fiction movies. Same situation but different contexts and similar conclusion: it is not possible fully learn a language just by observation. $\endgroup$ Oct 6 at 3:50
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I cannot approximate the exact amount of time it would take to learn a language that way. However, you can make things easier for yourself by inducing some luck in your story.

And by that I mean, you can have your linguist find and listen to the conversations that are happening inside one of their school. If they have any. Where they are teaching small children to speak their language.

Or any kind of family with a toddler where the parents or some adult is trying to teach their own language to the child.

And by listening to their conversations, which are meant to teach their own language to one of their children. The hopes of learning their language and learning it way faster than listening to casual conversations are way higher.

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  • $\begingroup$ Depending on the language, this may not work. For example, the Japanese have keigo (lit. polite language). It is taught a little bit in school (close to graduation), but most people today have to take separate classes to be fluent in it. All major companies also have keigo training programmes for new hires. Another example would be Russian profanities (it is a language of its own, don't confuse with English swearing words). Any native speaker of Russian is supposed to understand them but they are not taught officially anywhere. Moreover, this language is not used in front of outsiders. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    Oct 6 at 18:31
  • $\begingroup$ I assumed they don't need to be perfect at this language. They only want to learn it to break the language barrier, so I just assumed that they would be interested in learning just the bare minimum. @otkin $\endgroup$
    – Hole
    Oct 8 at 23:08
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Learning language is a very developmental process. It is the easiest when we are young and harder when we're older if the language's seperation points referred to as phonemes, differ considerably from our native language.

Its possible however simply because most language speakers tend to use the same phrases over and over with same filler words. You'd have to find someone who could point our nuances however.

Lets put it this way, we have translation dictionaries and europeans learned to communicate with each other.

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As described it seems a immensely difficult task if it weren't you waved anachronistic knowledge. The colonist need to overcome several conditions basic to the learning of a new language:

Understanding the social context: values, traditions, institutions (political or civil) etc all that give it utility and reason to the use of language. Without it the misunderstanding might be endless.

Sociolinguistical background: learning a language implies social differentiation. Colonists would like to set their sociolect to the right social group and social situation.

Learning grammar: grammar rules might have a high degree of complexity because of exceptions adding to the learning time.

So the colonists would need modern knowledge of anthropology, socio-linguistics and formal linguistics to overcome the lack of direct contact to language use.

They would be able to perform crucial experiments when they'd hit a block to the cost of getting some junior researchers killed.

I think they might be able to form a group of children in an isolated community where they'd only speak the target code. With this they might be able to show a "civilized" face after 30 to 40 years.

If they didn't have all that anachronistic knowledge it would take a social and scientific revolution to obtain them.

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