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A more specific off-shoot from something I previously asked, about instant interspecies translation. If I wanted some sort of substance to be able to affect or "rewire" the user's brain to instantly speak and understand another language*, without the use of nanobots or other technological aspects, how would it affect the brain to be able to do this? Could it be able to make the user still perceive the substance's language as their own language?

*(With some room for variation or error if required, just because of the nature of translation; perhaps it "teaches" a language unique to its function and mutual communication can only happen between two users?)

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    $\begingroup$ You've asked a question that's entirely outside the scope of human knowledge. We don't actually understand how information is stored in the brain. We're getting an idea of where information is stored, but not yet how. As a consequence, the only answer to this question as written is, "we don't know." The best we can do (and you'd have to edit your post to read this way), is give you some ideas about how it might manifest. Note that not knowing how to store the info, we have no blooming clue whether or not preserving the original language is possible or plausible. (*Continued*) $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Mar 28, 2023 at 20:06
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    $\begingroup$ ... Therefore, it will be up to you, the worldbuilder, to simply decide that whatever idea is presented to rationalize this technology in your world will preserve native language. Finally, please remember that you're allowed to ask one and only one question per post. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Mar 28, 2023 at 20:08
  • $\begingroup$ Is this between known or unknown languages? For instance, would it be the equivalent of me going out today and buying some Chinese Pills, or of me going out and buying a Universal Translator Pill that can talk to aliens that land on Earth for the first time? $\endgroup$
    – Cadence
    Mar 28, 2023 at 22:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Cadence Between unknown languages for interspecies communication; however I'm considering working around the obvious barriers of that sort of translator by just having it be like "Translator Pills" for a specific unique common language(s) (but then require both parties to be using them to mutually work), rather than just specifically being Chinese Pills or Spanish Pills or Venutian Pills. $\endgroup$
    – inkwell87
    Mar 29, 2023 at 16:04
  • $\begingroup$ Might you have been watching too much Star Trek, with its frankly risible ideas of 'universal translators'? How is '… like "Translator Pills" different from sticking a Babel Fish in your ear'? If you mean literally instantly, no; of course not, unless the 'teaching' process replaced chunks of memory - presumably meaning chunks of brain. Is that your suggestion? No substance could 'teach' anything, though some might facilitate the teaching process. What difference do you see between drug and chemicals and what, here, does, 'etc' include… or is that just anyone's guess? $\endgroup$ Apr 1, 2023 at 19:23

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RNA theoretically could because it can transfer memories. That has been demonstrated in snails, at least.

Though it might take a while to load into the brain's optimization system enough to make language fast.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is a great idea, but it begs the question, is language a memory? What's the difference between a stored experience (the snail experiment) and a stored smell, sound, visual que, or language pattern? But that doesn't change the fact that this could rationalize the OP's idea just fine. However, @AsekuVena, it's preferred that you bring something from the link forward to make your claim. E.G., a quote from or summary of the article. This is basically a link-only answer, which Stack Exchange doesn't prefer. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Mar 28, 2023 at 20:11
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH Good point. $\endgroup$
    – Aseku Vena
    Mar 28, 2023 at 20:14
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    $\begingroup$ What has been demonstrated is that it can transfer conditional reflexes. There is a long way from salivating when hearing the dinner bell to remembering that in English one travels by train, whereas in French on voyage en train, and in German Man reist mit dem Zug. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 28, 2023 at 20:39
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH: That is a very important and profound question. See the entire Chinese Room debate, and ChatGPT for a practical implementation of said room. (And in the context, one is an indefinite pronoun, the singular of some, not a numeral. So, although I know nothing of Fnnish, I am almost certain that it wouldn't be yksi. For example, in Romanian or Italian the sentence would be translated as third person singular reflexive voice with no subject, "se călătorește cu trenul", "si viaggia in treno".) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 28, 2023 at 22:01
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Thanks for introducing the Chinese Room thought experiment! Not just for myself, but also for the OP. I think it's a fascinating concept. When I was first learning Finnish, most of my time in a conversation was spent translating what I heard and what I spoke. That would be the "weak AI" perspective. I didn't really "understand" Finnish, I simply had that "program" Searle spoke about that let me interact with people who did. Years later I no longer had to translate, but could react instinctively to what I heard (the "strong AI" solution). The OP could use that! $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Mar 28, 2023 at 22:42
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Not really. Despite the RNA answer. Language is a skill, translating thoughts into words and grammar is not simple memory.

Just like memorizing an English-Spanish dictionary word by word will not teach you Spanish, or how to think in Spanish, or how to roll your R's. Those aren't things you remember, but things that you do. There are similar skills required in French, in Chinese, in Russian, in Cherokee.

All skills and systems that we learn take so long because they are literally a forced growth process, synapses and connections are biological networks that take time to grow. Ingesting something will not make that happen "instantly".

Ingesting something might give you the ability to remember the first thousand primes, or a thousand digits of pi, but it would not let you speak a foreign language.

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    $\begingroup$ There is a proverbial (in-)famous 19th century Portuguese-English conversation guide, known as English As She Is Spoke, written by an audacious Portuguese who could not speak English, but could read French, and who wrote the guide by translating Portuguese into French and then looking up the French words in a French-English dictionary. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 28, 2023 at 20:44
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP What was the result of this experiment? from "infamous", I presume a hilarious failure. Word-for-word translation from French would be marginally understandable, but certainly confusing and difficult parsing for a native English speaker. Like using a gendered pronoun to refer to a language. $\endgroup$
    – Amadeus
    Mar 29, 2023 at 11:20
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    $\begingroup$ It was not an experiment. Wikipedia has some examples of "translation". It was sold as a genuine honest Portuguese to English conversation guide. According to Wikipedia, Mark Twain said of English as She Is Spoke that "Nobody can add to the absurdity of this book, nobody can imitate it successfully, nobody can hope to produce its fellow; it is perfect." $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 29, 2023 at 12:27
  • $\begingroup$ Dictionaries 📖 don't give grammar. If you have a grammar table, you can translate any language (though you would sound like a robot 🤖 and miss minor details). Yes, those synapses are necessary to make language fast, but that would just be like extracting a ZIP file if you contemplate using the language until it clicks. $\endgroup$
    – Aseku Vena
    Mar 30, 2023 at 17:50
  • $\begingroup$ @AsekuVena Your comment is saying exactly what I wrote, in different words. I'm not sure why you wrote it. Thanks for agreeing with me, I guess. $\endgroup$
    – Amadeus
    Mar 30, 2023 at 20:09
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Does the Babel Fish Count?

Quotation from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier, but from those around it. It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. It then excretes into the mind of its carrier a telepathic matrix formed by combining the conscious thought frequencies with nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain which has supplied them. The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. The speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your Babel fish.

Now, I'm not suggesting you totally plagiarize Douglas Adams, but having some sort of symbiotic polyglot organism implanted inside you does seem to fit your criteria.

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My understanding of how the endorphin system and mirror neurons work suggests that this is a hard no.

Language involves connecting concepts to symbols. A chemical supplements can definitely strengthen a specific class of connections, but it can't generate connections that aren't there, and it definitely can't connect arbitrary sets of concepts.

For such a pill to work, it would require nanites that identified the brain centers that form concepts, build the specific concepts in those centers, build the symbol recognition centers, then connect the two.

We actually understand more of this these days due to the advances in neural networks to do image recognition. Language recognition is a temporal overlap of what you're hearing now and what you heard over the past few seconds, passed through short-term memory. This generates the symbols, but we don't really understand how the concepts are stored, much less how they are mapped to each other.

We do know that the concepts are also mapped to text and images, and that the mappings are all independent. Brain damage can wipe one out while leaving the other untouched.

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  • $\begingroup$ This answer fits text but not the fullness of language which includes muscle control for producing certain sounds which is why we often can tell that someone learned the language late - they produce different vowel sounds than we do. For example, the way that "you" is pronounced out in west Texas (almost three syllables) is hard to reproduce by anyone who didn't grow up there. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Mar 29, 2023 at 14:31
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidR, there are three things I can think of, off the top of my head, that cause the problem you describe, but don't involve linguistic comprehension. The obvious one is that your tongue isn't practiced at making a specific linguistic back-flip, so you don't do it right. That's muscle memory. The second is the default vowel of a language, which results in "bad tongue posture," making it hard to reach some of the vowel sounds. Those two are the biggest contributor to cross-lingual mispronunciation. $\endgroup$ Mar 29, 2023 at 15:13
  • $\begingroup$ +1 for highlighting that it's impossible without knowing the structure of the receiving brain. However, in your comment responding to @DavidR you said there are three things you can think of, but you only listed two - out of interest, what was the third? $\endgroup$ Mar 30, 2023 at 4:18
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    $\begingroup$ @KerrAvon2055, thanks. I'm glad you asked. The third is your ear's ability to recognize the difference between, for instance, the oo in book and an ü. If a sound doesn't exist in your language, it takes practice to recognize. That, however, would be part of the pattern recognition for an auditory symbol, and would be part of the brain pattern. It does make me think that "pill for language" would be similar to a pill to give you muscle memory. $\endgroup$ Mar 30, 2023 at 5:47
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In the 2017 video game Prey such technology exists called "neuromods". It allows instantly teaching any skill, not just languages. It works by scanning the brain of somebody who has the skill then creating a template of it and injecting a substance that will map the skill onto the brain of the recipient.

The substance is derived from a highly mutable agent that is under normal circumstances able to mimic properties of the world around itself. This is refined into the substance that can be used to map skills across brains.


In essence, it works by effectively magic. Because no real substance can actually do this. So, the direct answer to your question is "we do not know of such thing", however, that has not stopped other worldbuilders from using such an idea.

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In a hypothetical scenario where a substance can rewire the user's brain to instantly speak and understand another language without the use of nanobots or other technological aspects, the substance would need to interact with the brain in several ways:

Enhance neural plasticity: The substance would need to increase the brain's ability to create new connections and modify existing ones rapidly. This could be achieved by upregulating specific neurochemicals, such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes the growth of new neurons and the formation of new synapses.

Target language-specific brain regions: The substance would need to specifically target the language-related regions of the brain, such as Broca's area (responsible for speech production) and Wernicke's area (responsible for language comprehension). It would also need to affect the connections between these regions and other areas involved in language processing, such as the angular gyrus and the arcuate fasciculus.

Encode linguistic knowledge: The substance would somehow need to encode the grammatical structures, vocabulary, and phonetic patterns of the target language into the user's brain. This could involve creating or modifying specific neural pathways and connections to store the new information.

Integrate new language with existing language skills: To allow the user to still perceive the substance's language as their own, the substance would need to seamlessly integrate the new language with the user's existing language skills. This could involve creating new connections between the newly formed neural pathways and the user's existing language-related brain regions.

Adapt to individual differences: Since individuals have different language backgrounds and cognitive abilities, the substance would need to adapt its effects to accommodate these differences. This could involve tailoring the substance's neural effects to the specific language background and cognitive profile of the user.

Given the complex and intricate nature of the brain, achieving such effects without the use of nanobots or other technological aspects is highly improbable. Even if a substance could achieve these effects, it would still be challenging to ensure mutual communication between users, as language is a complex and nuanced system that relies on context, culture, and individual experiences. Furthermore, the long-term effects of such a substance on the brain are unknown and could potentially be harmful. As has already been said here, even if you have the knowledge of what sounds to make, that doesn't give you the ability to make these sounds. A better bet would be technology-based, or to bypass the need to rewire the brain completely and has an alien parasite do the translating for you, but that has already been alluded to by Mathaddict in another answer.

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