In my world the characters find themselves in a new land. They do not understand the locals nor do the locals understand them. How could these characters learn to understand the locals withing a month or two considering neither have ever had touch with each other's laungage?

  • I've thought of the locals having a certain herbal preparation that alters the brain making it able to understand them, but how would that actually go about?
  • It is also worth mentioning that the locals of this place posses a certain alien artifact, could it hold a power to make them understand each other and, if so, how would it do it?
  • Would it be possible for the characters to just learn the new laungage just by being among the locals for a longer period of time? Is something like that plausible?
  • 14
    $\begingroup$ Have you watched the movie Arrival? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrival_(film) The entire movie is about how to communicate with an Alien Species. I don't want to spoil it but it s quite realistic. You should watch it and you ll have your answers. $\endgroup$
    – Fred
    Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 0:46
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ You might be interested in this extreme example. It's certainly a special case, but it's fascinating! $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 1:56
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ It is much easier if said person already speaks many different languages and dialect don't count, many languages today shares a common root but ultimately we simply let the fists do the talking! It's more effective... $\endgroup$
    – user6760
    Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 3:49
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ A few important questions are: Are the groups amicably disposed to learn from each other? Are the characters trained linguists? How well do they need to know the language? Even without training, one can have enough communication for simple barter trading and to make simple requests (food, directions etc.) within minutes. Deeper abstract concepts may take years. $\endgroup$
    – smatterer
    Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 3:50
  • 10
    $\begingroup$ By "understand", do you mean able to get the meaning of "Beware of that charging lion" or "Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another."? $\endgroup$
    – Mike Scott
    Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 9:45

8 Answers 8


Humans have a built-in ability to learn languages. While this ability is greatest in young children, it never goes away. What you are looking for is called learning a language by immersion. It has been practiced in all times and in all places by very many (millions of) people, in most cases because they had to. Think of the countless language shifts which happened throughout history: how did the Gauls, or the Iberians, or the Dacians learn Latin? How did the north Africans learn Arabic? How did the Britons learn Old English? How did the Wends learn German? The Romans did not open adult education centers to teach their new subjects Latin; the Angles and the Saxons did not organize language classes for their new Briton neighbours; the Germans did not set up formal training for the Wends or the Sorbs...

There are techniques used to learn languages in the field, with no common language between the explorer and the locals; see for example "Language learning in the field" on the respected Language Log; the article discusses Ken Pike's monolingual elicitation techniques.

A month or two is a very short time. Most people don't really learn a new language in a month or two, unless the two languages are quite similar; for example, someone who speaks a Romance language can adapt to another Romance language in such a time frame -- they won't be fluent, but they will understand questions and be able to produce understandable answers. But even for distant languages, in a month or two they will learn enough to say yes and no, here and there, come and go, to ask for directions etc. For them to be able to have meaningful conversations you must either allow more time or to have them be linguistically gifted, or very young... Having a strong motivation also helps, as does having a dedicated tutor.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thank you for the detailed response! I was thinking of maybe combining the two options - what if the herbal preparation or the alien artifact enhanced the abillty of the charachters to learn the laungage? $\endgroup$
    – L. T.
    Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 1:11
  • 14
    $\begingroup$ @L.T. The herbal drug does not even need to be specific for learning languages. When learning a language very dissimilar to one's own one of the most difficult tasks, at least in the beginning, is to acquire the vocabulary. With similar languages this is not so hard; for example, an English speaker won't need to make a great effort to learn that the German words "Haus" and "Maus" mean "house" and "mouse", an "Apfel" is an "apple", or that "Bruder" is "brother" and "Schwester" is "sister". But for learning a very different language a memory-enhancing drug would certainly help a lot. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 1:42
  • $\begingroup$ Also note in learning how to read/write listen/speak are two realated but different skills. The sounds of some phonems can be very trick for the student as some verb tenses, grammatical rules and the right context to use one or another word $\endgroup$
    – jean
    Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 19:31
  • $\begingroup$ I can't find any original source citations (see e.g. this mainstream media article), but it isn't a given that children are fundamentally better than adults in learning language. Apart from the reasons given in that article, children have a large circumstantial advantage over adults: their immersion is mandatory and is 100%, because they have no prior language to fall back on. $\endgroup$
    – JBentley
    Commented Sep 2, 2017 at 1:37
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Learning accents, sure. But a child needs years to pick up a language, while an adult can reasonably do it in 3 months of intensive (full immersion) learning. $\endgroup$
    – Davor
    Commented Sep 2, 2017 at 18:19

You don't need herbal teas. You don't need alien artifacts. Immersion will indeed do the trick. Patient teachers help. Similar languages help. But really, the single driving force in your story will be mere survival. These characters will either learn the new language and survive, or else they will not and will die.

How well they learn will depend on many factors including the willingness of student to learn and teacher to teach.

I don't know anything else about your world or the story you're telling here. You could help them along by individual strangers lodging with different families and see how they do. Local lovers might also be a strategy. How many strangers are involved will also affect how well they adapt and learn --- too many and they will probably end up forming the local equivalent of an immigrants' barrio.

  • 8
    $\begingroup$ "Local lovers might also be a strategy." - The French have a name for it: "l'école horizontale". $\endgroup$
    – alephzero
    Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 10:41
  • $\begingroup$ I've heard it said that English derived from French (Norman) soldiers trying to pick up German (Saxon) barmaids. Local lovers would definitely help overcome communication obstacles. $\endgroup$
    – Ghotir
    Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 19:10
  • $\begingroup$ I believe that French School has branches everywhere in the world! $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 23:01
  • $\begingroup$ There might be chance that they don't learn the language fast enough and die. That is, if the language is very different/difficult $\endgroup$
    – Vylix
    Commented Sep 2, 2017 at 6:29

Way way back I took an anthropology class. The lecturer talked about fieldwork, and how there was always the tough decision about whether to go in to your target tribe with an interpreter, or just show up and learn the language by immersion. If you have an interpreter, you can do interviews and such immediately, but you don't build as good of rapport with your hosts. The number I was told was about 6 months to learn a non Indo-European language (that is, very different from your native tongue) well enough to be conversational. And mind you, these are expert people-watchers!

If your plot supports it, I'd give your stranded guys a little more time (ie, 6 months). If that doesn't work, you might try having their hosts' language belong to the same language family, or a language derived from the explorers' version of Church Latin. That'll likely chip a couple months off the time they'll need.

  • $\begingroup$ Immersion is the fatest way to learn a new language. In fact if you are alone where nobody is speaking your mother language you really hurry up to master a few phrases/words ex: "Food", "Bathroom", "Hello", "Thanks", "Sorry". If the phonems are really strange and difficult it can take months to properly understand or speak a single word. Example: Imagine the difference between: e, é and ê is very subtle or tho roll out your tongue and press it against your theets to form "TH". =) $\endgroup$
    – jean
    Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 19:43

Learning new language in two month while living among speakers is quite realistic.

However, there are few conditions:

  1. Two languages (new one and native/known one) must not be too much apart. Different pronunciation techniques (like in clicking languages) will slow down the process;
  2. Learner(s) must have their linguistic abilities not below the average;
  3. There must be some willing teachers (not necessarily professionals), ready to devote hours of time to their student(s).
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your response, I'm quite pleased with the fact that it's possible. $\endgroup$
    – L. T.
    Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 1:08
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ As for point3: There is an old adage that comes to mind: "A new language is best learned in bed." Meaning that having a love-affair with a speaker of the other language really helps. $\endgroup$
    – Tonny
    Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 15:58
  • $\begingroup$ Not just clicking, which is rather extreme, I can understand tonal languages, but have great difficulty speaking them $\endgroup$
    – Mawg
    Commented Sep 2, 2017 at 21:33

How could these characters learn to understand the locals withing a month or two considering neither have ever had touch with each other's laungage?

As AlexP mentioned, it is rather implausible that a person becomes fluent in a completely alien language within two months, but you explicitly stated that the characters should simply be able to understand the locals. If the characters are constantly exposed to real-life situations in which the locals' language is used, they will definitely be able to understand many day-to-day interactions regardless of their native language(s).

Would it be possible for the characters to just learn the new laungage just by being among the locals for a longer period of time? Is something like that plausible?

The time it takes to become proficient in a language varies tremendously: Even among people of the same age and with the same native language(s), educational background, etc., the time it takes each person to learn a language will be very different from that of the others. However, as an anecdote, I learned to speak more-or-less conversational Russian in about five months despite not having any knowledge of any Slavic languages beforehand. I was in no way "fluent" and it was very obvious to Russian speakers that I wasn't a native speaker, but I could surivive in Russia. I'm assuming that this is more or less analogous to your characters' goals.

Language learning assistance


I've thought of the locals having a certain herbal preparation that alters the brain making it able to understand them, but how would that actually go about?

There is some inconclusive evidence that amphetamines may indirectly aid language learning, but it is very difficult to tease out the different effects going on; If you're willing to stretch believability a bit, you could have the characters be offered a regular food/drink with mild amphetamine-like effects: For example, the locals pray regularly throughout the day and offer the characters a herbal tea during prayer which supposedly "aids neophytes and guests in perceiving the glory of the Gods" — compare this to e.g. the usage of hallucinogenic peyote or ayahuasca among some traditional Native American religions. This might have the effect of speeding up the characters' having some sort of mild linguistic "revelation" but, the stronger the effect you describe, the more ridiculous this will look to anyone with any sort of scientific background.


It is also worth mentioning that the locals of this place posses a certain alien artifact, could it hold a power to make them understand each other and, if so, how would it do it?

There is already an "alien artifact" which tremendously facilitates language learning, namely a Rosetta Stone device: Your characters were not the first to visit these exotic peoples. They find an old legal/trade/religious/etc. document which isn't necessarily in the characters' own language, but they realize that it is a multilingual document and certain key phrases are cross-referenced among the languages in the document. Perhaps even one of the languages is somewhat recognizable — maybe a very old version of a dialect of a language one of the characters speaks. This would speed up the learning process immensely but is in no way a requirement: The same device could be used even if none of the languages it contains are understandable to the characters. Using this document, the characters then make a breakthrough in relations with the locals.

This excludes extreme cases, where the characters' language is as different from the locals' as possible, e.g. if a native English speaker tried to understand ǃXóõ, Dyirbal or Inuit. Even then, they would probably learn to understand a surprising amount by the end of two months if they were immersed well enough and were motivated enough.

Russian and other Slavic languages are Indo-European but are very, very different from many other European languages; Knowing English, Spanish, German, etc. is pretty much of no direct benefit to understanding them. As a fun fact, Hindi and Urdu are also Indo-European languages and are relatively closely related to English in the grand scheme of things... but good luck trying to understand Hindi using just English.


As previous answers stated just immersion is enough to learn a foreign language. However, it works only if we are talking about the same species. All humans have a capability (excluding special disability cases) to hear and produce all sounds that human languages comprise. It may take quite some time, but with a sufficient training, even elders can learn to distinguish sounds and produce them more or less accurately. It works even for the most phonetically and grammatically distant human languages.

The acquisition of new hearing and speaking skills also depends on an importance of phonetic peculiarities for conveying meanings. For example, in Australian English and Japanese, the vowel's length changes the meaning, e.g. fairy [feːɹi] and ferry [feɹi], span (as in wing span) and span [spæn](past tense of spin); おばあさん (obaasan — grandmother) and おばさん (obasan — aunt), おじいさん (ojiisan — grandfather) and おじさん (ojisan — uncle). In Russian, the sound length is less important, however, stress of syllables and firmness of the consonants can be crucial: зАмок (zAmok — castle) and замОк (zamOk — lock), Лен (Len — the name Lena in the vocative case [colloquial Russian]) and лень (len' — laziness). Accordingly, learners of Australian English and Japanese become better at distinguishing length of vowels (and correctly articulating them), while learners of Russian improve their consonant and stress skills. It is not a rocket science. It is just a matter of practice and exposure to native speakers.

The real problem appears when we are talking about an alien language. One the valid points that Arrival makes is that learning writing can be easier than a spoken language. If aliens have a very different biology humans might not be able to hear or produce the sounds of an alien language. A specialised equipment might be the only way to deal with this case. A language that combines phonetical component with some form of a body language, e.g. gestures, change of skin colour, etc., may pose even greater problems since human bodies might be utterly different in appearance, bone structure, and functions. Equipment might help, but also might not.

As in Arrival, learning a written language can be an easier route in the above-mentioned situation. Of course, that is assuming that both aliens and humans are able to perceive writings of each other and have means to reproduce them. If aliens do not have a writing system, newcomers can teach them. Probably, recruiting some children or elders would be the most beneficial for a writing project since it takes more time.

If both sides, aliens and humans, are interested in communication, they will probably develop a new language that can accommodate limitations of both sides. This lingua franca will be simpler and less nuanced, but it will get messages across and things done. Lingua francas also develop in human populations, of course. But usually it happens when many speakers of two or more languages (likely distant) live together or perform some important activity, for example, trade. If you have a very small group of foreigners among a huge group of locals, the newcomers are forced to learn a local language. Although, some borrowing from their language can also occur.

I think that depending on the numbers of your characters and locals something like a lingua franca is very possible. It might also add some flavour to the language of your story.

While a potion or a mysterious artefact could speed up the learning process, personally, I would more interested in a story that does not use this shortcut. Language learning situations are ideal for a comic relief. They can also trigger some major plot events. It might be hard to write but I am sure the readers would appreciate the effort.

  • $\begingroup$ "Sheep" and "ship" aren't distinguished by vowel length, they are distinguished by place. "Sheep" has a close front unrounded vowel and "ship" has a near-close near-front unrounded vowel. Length is not contrastive in English. You also stress syllables, not consonants. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 23:39
  • $\begingroup$ You are right, the type of vowel is more important. Thank you. I have to note though, ESL students at first are taught to look at the length difference, especially if it is something that does not exist in their native language. I can see how it is a wrong approach. I changed examples to the correct Australian English minimal pairs. $\endgroup$
    – Olga
    Commented Sep 2, 2017 at 1:17
  • $\begingroup$ great examples! $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 2, 2017 at 1:27

As everybody has said, immersion works well, but perhaps not quite as quickly as you need.

One very important question is how fluent you need them to be. Learning a few nouns and verbs can be done in minutes. The same with words like "please", "thanks" and "hello".

Building up a larger vocabulary takes time. Grammar takes even more time.

After a month or two you should be able to say "Trade, yes? Give chocolate. Get wheat. Fine, yes?" but you will have problems saying anything more complex.

You can have a herb tea or alien artifact help the process along, but you should only do that if they are otherwise relevant for the plot.

Children learn languages very quickly. If the travelers have children along, they will become interpreters for their adults. Otherwise the local children can learn the travelers' language and help out.


I want to focus on something about the Herbs or Herbal tea you mention. If this is indeed an alien place, maybe the tea would work by enhancing the parts of the brain that are responsible for language.

I recall, from a linguistics class a long time and many many beers ago, that the Language centers in the brain tend to become less active over time.

They are most active in youngsters, but by teenage years they are far less effective. I remember that because the teacher was quite passionate about the stupidity of not introducing foreign language courses in elementary schools for 7 and 8 year olds, and instead leaving them for teenagers who will have a much harder time learning.

Have your herbal tea restore the language centers of the brain to the more responsive state of a 6 year old. More properly, have it affect your aliens this way. This is how they would grasp our language much faster than we would grasp theirs.

You can twist things up a little more by making it hard, physiologically, for the aliens to produce the sounds that we use as speech. Maybe their tongues are a different shape, so glottal stops are hard to do. Maybe their lips are more rigid. All kinds of thing can be done here.

Anyway, both sides will learn through immersion, but the herbs and vocal apparatus will cause trade offs


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .