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Say I've got a hero who's been summoned to another world. The inhabitants of this world have been expecting his arrival, and are armed with the knowledge that he won't speak their language. So the first thing they do is give it to him. Every method I've come up with for this has left me unsatisfied. Here's what I've run through:

Transfer of knowledge. Someone who knows the language, or knows how to teach the language, magically transfers that knowledge to the hero so that he instantaneously understands everything that's said. The issues I have with this are that "transfer of knowledge" being a magical skill seems too powerful. There aren't enough limitations, and adding a limitation like "oh, it only works for learning languages" is too contrived. In a world where this is possible, every child would learn all of the knowledge available in the world as soon as their brains are developed enough to contain that much information. I would prefer to keep a tighter rein on the limitations of my magical system.

One of the things I've considered to help with the limitations is that, since these particular natives have had prior knowledge of our hero's coming, they could have spent potentially years preparing a spell specifically for the learning of language. A sort of "welcome to our world" gift basket of magic. It still leaves me with my original problem, however, of the transfer being possible at all. Just because it's difficult or time-consuming to do this doesn't mean that every single person wouldn't take advantage of it.

Another thing I've considered is eliminating the learning of the native language entirely, and instead have the natives speak English. The most likely justification here would be that the hero is not the first person to have traveled here from Earth, and the previous visitor(s) brought the language with them. It would be reasonable to explain away that it was known or at least assumed the hero would come from the same world, so the welcoming committee learned English for this specific purpose.

I'm not fond of this execution, in large part because I don't want any other Earthlings in the story, and would only be incorporating it (at the moment) for this very specific purpose.

I've also thought about using telepathy instead of spoken language, and communicating using emotion and intention instead of words. This appeals to me in some ways, but I hit a big hurdle in my plans for deliberate misleading of characters. It's hard to lie when you're talking using your emotions.

Finally, I considered using a magical item to imbue the hero with the knowledge of the local language, like an amulet (or, I dunno, an enchanted hearing aid :P ). Once again, you run into the issue of the magic system having the ability to transfer knowledge. This time it is not into a person, which is better, but it is into an item, and that makes it almost as overpowered in my eyes. It adds the hurdle of altering the vision I have for my magic system, which currently uses the human body as a vessel for magic and potential energy stored in the body as fuel. For example, in the scene as it's currently written, a native of the world touches our hero and heals some minor injuries. I'm happy with that, since it's completely reasonable in my mind for someone to use their own energy to accelerate the healing process, and for this person to have the ability to channel that energy into another person. But in the same action, our hero learns the local language.

For the life of me, I cannot justify this without going outside of my comfort zone for the costs and limitations of the magic system as it currently exists.

So... Any ideas that anyone has would be much appreciated!

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    $\begingroup$ Reality check and magic as concurrent tags seems... at odds. $\endgroup$ – Isaac Kotlicky Jun 4 '17 at 22:58
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    $\begingroup$ How about controlled synesthesia? Basically when the hero gets spoken to by the "interpreter," a vague image our sense of meaning gets implied. It doesn't overwhelm the senses, but it depends understanding. After a while of extended monologues, the hero should be able to understand other speakers as well through his inductive knowledge of their language. $\endgroup$ – Isaac Kotlicky Jun 4 '17 at 23:01
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    $\begingroup$ I wonder if a language installed this way might suffer the same issues as a mechanical translater. See worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/q/61954/885 for example… $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 4 '17 at 23:18
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    $\begingroup$ What about a Babel fish? $\endgroup$ – Roman Jun 5 '17 at 12:21
  • $\begingroup$ This question has options for the natives already knowing English: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/68569/… $\endgroup$ – Rob Watts Jun 5 '17 at 13:41

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Here a few idea's that might work:

  • The caster of the spell loses the knowledge the hero gains. This spell is still quite powerful, but can't be 'abused' so much, especially when your population is growing in total.

  • The spell works only on people from earth (or on summoned people). Alternatively it can only translate the language of the caster into any other language, meaning the hero doesn't actually learn the language.

  • The spell allows one to learn a second language since it needs a mother tongue to translate to. (Similar to the first idea in forms of power/restrictions and the second one conceptually).

  • 'The Bands of Mourning' by Brandon Sanderson has a very cool concept to deal with languages, that might work for you (with adaptation). (Mild spoiler warning):

    In this world the spiritual connection of people can be magically altered, so they speak the language of the area they are in. You could have a spell that similarly replaces (or translates) the language of your hero.

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    $\begingroup$ It took me a while to get comfortable with the idea of knowledge being lost during transfer, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it makes. It's a serious enough cost to keep it from being abused. And in the case of our hero, the transfer is important enough that someone would volunteer (or draw the short straw) to be a sacrificial lamb of sorts. It also opens up some neat possibilities for aged scholars passing on their knowledge to proteges, etc. Thanks very much! $\endgroup$ – ryangking Jun 5 '17 at 2:19
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Gradual, but remotely, before he shows up.

The natives are expecting him. Maybe they know where and who he is. They start remotely magically teaching him their language a year or more in advance. It is very puzzling for the hero, who finds himself thinking and then able to speak in words no-one understands. Maybe he even sees flashes of the teacher and where she is. He finds that he has the ability to sing in his new language. He worries he is going crazy.

You could work with this as one of his increasingly strange experiences before he actually shows up. It is still knowledge transfer but it is not faster than actually sitting in a room with him and teaching him the language: the magic is the remote aspect. The natives would still learn things the regular way because it is actually easier in person, without magic.

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    $\begingroup$ I really like the narrative possibilities if this approach. I'd up vote twice if it were possible. $\endgroup$ – Isaac Kotlicky Jun 4 '17 at 23:03
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Fantasy stories abound with unique magical objects that cannot be copied. Either because they were made in antiquity and the knowledge to make them was lost with the makers, or they were fashioned by something incredibly powerful but momentary, like during some exotic astrological conjunction in a hillcliff monastery from a combination of spells, meditation, woogabooga blood (sadly these beasts are now extinct), and a strangely warm and shiny metal gotten from a meteorite, etc. Or the Gods made them, no explanations required.

Anyway, one magical object with this property, or a single entity who can do it, would be the way to go.

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  • $\begingroup$ Actually a similar concerning magical objects in Mark Anthony's Last Rune saga. $\endgroup$ – Jesse Cohoon Jun 5 '17 at 1:50
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I suggest a magical binding: Call the local language Local, and the Hero language English. People on the world in need volunteer to learn English, and begin training. The one with the greatest aptitude and progress is chosen, and when the hero arrives, this person's mind is magically bound to that of the hero. It is a form of telepathy; in that what the hero hears in Local, this person translates to English; what the hero wishes to say, this person translates into Locla speech; controlling the vocal tract of the hero.

But privacy is maintained: The magical "interception points" are effectively just after the hero's eardrum converts the sound to electrical nerve impulse: that is "run through" the translator's mind and turned into an English signal instead. Then just as the hero's speech center is planning a vocal utterance: The English sounds that would be formed are transformed, by the translator, into Local speech. The magical "communication" between the hero and the translator is instantaneous and impossible to interrupt.

In other words, we want the magic to exactly mimic the states of knowledge as if the translator were physically at the side of the hero: He or she does not know what is in the Hero's mind, only what he actually said. And vice versa, if you want any intrigue about the translator intentionally mistranslating something to keep a dark secret from the hero.

It doesn't have to mimic the timing of them being side-by-side, but for dramatic purpose you could make this translation cause a slight delay in understanding or replies, noticeable by those that interact with the hero: But not much more than if a non-native speaker, new to the language, were working hard to internally translate Local to English and vice versa. You don't want this to get in the way of your story, and you can quickly move on to not mentioning it at all.

Also for dramatic (or comic) purpose, if you have the hero say something the translator doesn't understand in English, maybe it comes out verbatim, or as "uhhhhh..." or a squeak. The hero realizes it did not translate and has to try again in simpler English. (If you don't like that idea, write the hero smart enough to use only English the translator understands; recalling this translator was the best of hundreds that volunteered.)

This is an arduous task for the translator; they must be kept in silent isolation without interruption. They must be awake and alert every moment the Hero is awake (magically enforced). They would probably have to eat, wash and eliminate while the Hero sleeps. When it is over, they themselves are seen as heroic soldiers to their people, it is a major sacrifice of their entire social life and every waking moment for as long as the quest lasts.

Once the quest is done, the binding is ceremoniously and magically severed; last words and thank yous are said, medals awarded, etc while the Hero still understands.

Afterward, the Hero knows only as much of the language as he would have learned on his quest with the translator physically at his side. Likewise, the translator knows as much more English as if he were by the hero's side.

One more detail: The Hero talking to himself, even in a whisper, can inform the translator; but this is a one-way channel; the translator can inform those taking care of his needs of anything the hero heard or said: including the hero's own speech. The reverse may not work: The translator cannot cause the hero to speak in Local anything but what the hero intended to speak in English. If you really want a two-way channel; I have stipulated that the translator could lie to the Hero about what was heard: So if the hero gets somebody talking, say a vendor, the translator could make the hero hear something else instead of that speech: A message from those in charge.

I might keep that ability (to lie) a strategic secret, however, known to readers and the translator, but not the hero, because lies would be more effective if the hero did not know the translator is capable of substituting anything he wants for what was actual said, including lies. If you devise a situation in which it is absolutely necessary to blatantly reveal this to the hero, it can be a big surprise: It saves his life, but for the hero, upon reflection, a reveal that explains many inconsistencies that all make sense if the translator has been lying to him, say about some war crimes that were committed.

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You don't make the hero learn the language. You make the hero understand the language. The Hero can only speak English, but while under the effects of this spell, can understand their language, as though that person were speaking English. The Welcoming Party would also have this spell cast on them, allowing them to understand English.

While the spell lasts, they teach the hero their language. It can take as long as needed, and the Hero can still communicate with them, but both parties know the spell has a limited duration and is difficult enough to cast that it won't be done again.

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I suggest that an "exam spell" to temporarily boost the ability of the brain to absorb any new information would do the trick.

You have said that the magic of your world "uses the human body as a vessel for magic and potential energy stored in the body as fuel." That would allow for a spell akin to taking a drug that increases the speed at which the brain lays down neural pathways, and which is "paid for" in terms of intense exhaustion, or maybe even physical and mental damage if the spell is used for too long.

Combine this spell with a non-magical intensive language course conducted by the best teachers in the realm. As the answer by keiv.fly has said, given sufficient motivation people can learn languages surprisingly fast in real life. You don't say what has caused your hero to be summoned to another world, but I assume that the need for his presence and ability to function in that world is very urgent. If he is a reluctant hero, motivate him further by dire threats.

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There's a bunch of answers, but none touched on the possibility suggested in my comment so I'll add it in here:

The spell doesn't transfer or teach any new knowledge. Rather, it induces a sort of controlled synesthesia, in which the listener sees a vague image or other comprehension/gut feeling linked to the words the speaker is saying. As such:

  1. It doesn't convey any specific advantage in "gaining knowledge" (though it may provide a more intuitive grasp of meaning)
  2. Nothing prevents the speaker from lying
  3. The capacity to "cause hallucinations" is fairly minor and wouldn't be broadly effective as a weapon.
  4. It might have a cultural element, in which a person operates as a "dream weaver," artfully depicting tales in the minds-eye of the listeners
  5. After a while of listening to the speaker, the hero begins to intuitively grasp the spoken word of the people.
  6. Whether they can mimic it with speech is a different story, though perhaps this spell could be easily taught to them to communicate back with the natives.
  7. This point ties well with the fact that this would be a rather common spell - something everyone would learn as a low level magic though most would not need to use later in adulthood unless, as stated above, it related to their specific role in the culture.
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Your hero can learn in a dream in a previous world. There are rumors that some people speak the language of angels when they are sleeping. You forget a lot of information that was in a dream, so teaching in a dream is slower.

Actually teaching the language is not that slow as many think. If you manage to deal with the stress and are only speaking a new language you can already be speaking English in 3 months (from zero to level B2).

Also increased interest in the language will significantly reduce the time to learn the language. Learning the language is about learning the words, grammar, and using both very fast to speak. And for learning you need time.

Another idea is that we transfer lots of knowledge with books. So a book could be sent to a hero. And he accidentally finds it and somehow knows that it is for him. Reading and learning the book by heart is boring, so we need a spell here.

So I would propose: A hero finds a book and is under a spell to have interest in it. He then has sessions in his dream that correspond to chapters in the book. He looks his session in the book and writes down everything that he needs to remember on stickers. He puts stickers around his flat and like obsessed (another spell) repeats the words until he remembers them (movies Rain Man, Arrival). He feels mad being obsessed with the language. The feeling is getting stronger as people around him start thinking that he is mad. In a year he learns enough to speak and communicate, but still does not know lots of rare words (level B2). He is transferred to a new world and there continues to learn the language and adjust his pronunciation to the real one. I do not expect dreams to transfer exact sounds well. So after 3 months in the new world he already can speak fluently (level C2). Or you can increase the time before the new world from 1 year to 2 years. He will then know the language fluently.

I used the language level system A1 to C2. See this link: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_European_Framework_of_Reference_for_Languages

I use the idea of Will that a hero could start learning the language before arriving in a new world.

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There are probably several ways you could go about this:

  1. Make it so that the transferred knowledge can only be "placed on top" of the parts of the brain where other similar information already exists. i.e. Make it so that the information (language) transferred has to have some other language memory in the target to bind to. If you would like to nerf this even more, you could make it so that the using the spell would actually replace the main character's original language with the new world's. That way, you would have to lose something of similar value in order to gain new knowledge.

  2. You can make it so that everybody has a little bit of mana and subconsciously imbue a little bit of magic into their words, allowing them to transmit the meaning of what they are saying. However, babies would still have to learn the language in order to frame their thoughts in an understandable manner so random grunts can't really count as a language unless its structured.

  3. You can make it so that translation spells are extremely simple to cast and are common knowledge (similar to solution 2). i.e. if anybody puts a little bit of mana into their voice and focus their will into their words, then they can transmit their meaning. Then have the MC slowly learn the language later on.

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The language itself is magical. You can learn the language by learning only a single spell. You can both tell the truth or lie using it.

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The issues I have with this are that "transfer of knowledge" being a magical skill seems too powerful. There aren't enough limitations, and adding a limitation like "oh, it only works for learning languages" is too contrived. In a world where this is possible, every child would learn all of the knowledge available in the world as soon as their brains are developed enough to contain that much information.

Perhaps the transfer of knowledge has some serious negative and/or unpredictable consequences, such as:

  • massive invasion of privacy (in either direction or both)
  • the recipient starts to experience some strong emotions from the donor that (s)he's never had and doesn't know how to control (or vice versa)
  • the knowledge itself eventually fades, leaving the recipient thinking (s)he knows something that (s)he actually doesn't (sort of like Anton's blindness, but for knowledge instead of vision)

Any of these could make the spell more trouble than it's worth, and potentially highly taboo. It's done with this summoned hero only because the need is so great, and because anyway he's "not one of us" and "won't be here long" so who cares if [negative consequence], and so on. You can have some characters who are opposed to this violation of taboo . . . and as other characters get to know the hero better and start to care about him, they may start to regret having violated the taboo on him.

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The Spell Is Really Bad For Your Health

This spell isn't used routinely because no parent is cruel enough to use it on their children.

The knowledge spell doesn't instantly give you natural memories. Instead it's a magical Siri in your brain, that zaps your brain cells to give you answers as you need them. It's annoying as heck, but worse than that, it's not gentle.

It gives the hero severe headaches every few days. She is given weekly healing spells to reverse the damage, but they aren't perfect; if the spell isn't switched off within a year the damage will build up and she'll be permanently injured.

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Magical Translator

This could come in one or two forms. First, you have the option of the people creating a magical artifact that automatically translates everything he says and hears. If he were to lose said object it would also mean losing access to that language. Another option would be telepathy based translations, perhaps a travelling companion by means of physical contact (on the shoulder, etc) provides the same effect as the magical artifact I described.

Just one option of many, but certainly not over powered.

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It may help to consider a few real world examples of sudden language acquisition, for example: The tower of Bable in the Bible - God confused the speech of the builders so they couldn't understand each other and scattered. Receptive Aphasia - Individuals may speak in long sentences that have no meaning, add unnecessary words, and even create new "words" Foreign Accent Syndrome - people become fluent in a second previously unknown language after a traumatic brain injury. Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction and our own ability to suspend disbelief hangs us up. If you're worried about your readers not relating to the reasons you can always 'hang a Lantern on it', that is, have the character or someone else point out how absurd it is. That allows you to move the story along without making an issue of it.

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