What Science Fiction Can Teach Us About Communicating With Other Cultures

We've all been there: your first meeting with a member of another culture, or your first attempt at real communication in a foreign language. More often than not, disaster results. Learning to cope with other ways of speaking, and other cultural contexts, can be a major challenge — but science fiction is here to help!

Science fiction is full of great lessons about how to approach people with a different worldview — even if they don't actually come from a different world. Here's what science fiction can teach us about learning to understand other cultures.

Never Trust a Universal Translator

Google Translate will never write you a coherent e-mail in Spanish, and it will certainly not help you communicate with other life forms.

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In the film Mars Attacks!, Earthlings communicate with the invading Martians through a universal translator. The machine mistranslates the Martians' arrival announcement as "We come in peace." Obviously, after the Martians have assassinated world leaders, destroyed international architectural icons, and blown up white doves, everyone realizes that the translation was a load.

That said, this lesson is inverted by successful translator droids like Star Wars' C-3P0.

Pidgin: Surprisingly Effective

The language of trade in the Chanur books by C.J. Cherryh is pidgin. This is portrayed as an effective way for all the different species to communicate with one another.

The equivalent of a "universal language" in Blade Runner is a hodgepodge of three or four different languages.

Old People Will Talk How They Want

When looking for the representative member of a culture, it may be tempting to go for the oldest, most prestigious-looking member of the assembly. They won't use all that young-people slang and teach you poor grammar. However, you should remember that the oldest and most prestigious member of most Earth assemblies will still use "queer" to describe someone odd, refer to "movies" as "pictures," and so on.

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Yoda could be seen as the most extreme example of this. His ability to speak Galactic Basic is rather horrendous for someone who's assumedly been speaking it for hundreds of years... but he is 900 years old. If you were to speak the English used 900 years ago, you would sound pretty absurd, too. (That being said, this is speculative, as Yoda is of "species unknown" and there has never been an explanation for his object-subject-verb syntax.)

What Seems Essential in One Language is Fluff In Another

This mostly applies to the use of articles such as "the" or "a," which many non-English languages don't have.

In Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the narrator Manny doesn't use "nulls," as he calls them (meaning articles or other 'meaningless' words).

In Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, Qwghlmian is an incredibly concise language, consisting of 16 consonants, that is ideal for expressing concepts in binary, but is impossible to pronounce in actuality. It can express whole paragraphs in four words.

Immersion Is Only Useful in Context

Everyone has had that friend who returns from study abroad and announces that he is "basically fluent in Spanish now," despite being unable to identify any of the verb tenses in the entire language.

What Science Fiction Can Teach Us About Communicating With Other Cultures

The Junkions from Transformers have taken their knowledge of English almost entirely from Earth broadcasting. And so, while they can generally convey what they want, it sounds strange and absurd. Examples include the following:

"This sleek, sexy Junkion planet, now with turbo handling!"

"Yes, friends, act now, destroy Unicron. Kill the grand poobah. Eliminate even the toughest stains!"

Sometimes Just Understanding the Words Isn't Enough Without Cultural References

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In the acclaimed Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Darmok," the Enterprise's Universal Translator is able to translate the language of the Children of Tama into English perfectly fine — but the Children of Tama only speak in allusions to their mythology, which cannot be rendered into common referents.

The amazing blog Tenser, said the Tensor explains why this is a bit nonsensical: why wouldn't the Universal Translator just paraphrase the alien language, as it presumably does with Klingon or Romulan? Still, the basic point stands — you can understand a language perfectly, but you also need to grasp the cultural touchstones. Image by ChainsawSuit.com.

Dialects Are Important

Anyone who has attempted to chatter off in college-classroom Mandarin at a Cantonese dim sum restaurant will have learned this lesson. Dialects sound like a trivial afterthought when you're struggling through a new language, but when a "novio" becomes a "pololo" or your Quebecois car ("char") is a chariot in Paris, you realize they are crucial.

A good example comes from Cherryh's Chanur Saga. The characters frequently cannot speak dialects from their own homeworlds — even if said dialect is a variant of their native language.

Understanding a Language is Easier Than Speaking It

In your high school language class, it was always easier to understand what the teacher was asking you than it was to answer the question.

In Michael Crichton's Timeline, the group of scientists and archaeologists who head back to 1357 are all equipped with earpieces that translate medieval languages for them. The problem with this, of course, is that although the travelers can understand what others are saying, they cannot speak the language themselves.

Learning a New Language Can Drive You Nuts

This is most evident in H.P. Lovecraft, where learning to communicate with the Great Old Ones will drive a human irrevocably insane. Oh, R'lyehian.

Also, in The Embedding by Ian Watson, children are immersed from birth in strange constructed languages, including one with strange embedded syntax that defies normal human comprehension. At first, the kids seem to be just fine — but it does not turn out well. (This is bad news for some visiting aliens, who believe that if they can map every possible language structure as spoken by living brains, including such strange "embedded" ones, they can move past our reality into another universe.)

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When Beran leaves the relatively selfless world of Pao for the scheming, ambitious world of Breakness, he nearly goes nuts trying to learn the ego-centric language of Breakness in Jack Vance's Languages of Pao.

My Mouth Won't Do That!

At least one kid in your Spanish class couldn't roll an "r" to save his life. He was actually physically incapable of it.

The aforementioned Lovecraftian languages are often nearly (or entirely) unpronounceable.

In Cherryh's Chanur novels, oxygen breathers cannot pronounce the language of the methane-breathing Knnn, which sounds a bit like whale song.

The members of the Q in Star Trek all call themselves "Q" because their two-light-year-long names are too much for humans to say, and this letter is the closest approximation.

It's Much Easier to Learn Another Language of the Same Family

You know how Spanish, French, and Italian share so many root words? How occasionally you're just adding a different consonant (cabra v. capra)?

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In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the crew of the Enterprise has to travel back in time and bring back living humpback whales. Not just for eco-friendly biodiversity reasons, though — aliens have set up shop in orbit around Earth, emitting a signal that wipes out the power grid and leads to catastrophic weather events. The only creatures who can answer that signal? Humpback whales.

If You Think Your Translation Might be a Little Off, It Probably Is

In Ursula le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven, aliens fire nuclear missiles at Earth-but only because they believed that the missiles fired at them were an Earthling form of communication. Hence, they responded in kind. (The confusion is later cleared up.)

Sometimes, Incomprehension Can be a Defense Mechanism

In Robert Sheckley's story "Shall We Have a Little Talk?" an Earth first contact specialist travels to the world of Na to buy some land and start relations with the Naians, as the first step towards making the planet a target for human imperialism. At first, the Naian language appears simple enough — until the next day, when their language has mysteriously gained a whole bunch of new concepts and compound words. This goes on and on, until he's completely unable to communicate. "Stop agglutinating!" he shouts in frustration. It turns out the Naian language evolves quickly, as a defense mechanism against outsiders.

Math Is the Only Universal Language

Musicians may beg to differ, but while operas are freqently translated, equations never need to be.

In Contact by Carl Sagan, human beings first successfully communicate with extraterrestrials though repeating series of prime numbers. The transmissions become more and more complex, but the initial move was thanks to math.

In a similar fashion, the humans trying to understand the dead Martian language in H. Beam Piper's "Omnilingual" are stymied — until they find a Martian periodic table of elements, which are the same in any culture.

Unless, of course, it's money: the other universal language

The most common language in a society or planet will be the language of trade and business. (See: rising popularity of English versus French).

This is seen in the Chanur books, as we mentioned before. It is also seen in Firefly, where advertisements and other mass culture is in Chinese and everybody seems to speak at least a little weirdly accented Mandarin.

Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word

Acts of aggression or offense are very easy to understand. The apologies for these actions and/or international incidents are much trickier to translate.

In Ender's Game, the entire war is basically a result of the fact that humans cannot understand the bugger/Formic attempts at "Sorry! We didn't realize you were sentient!"

Linguists Are the Single-most Useful Member of Your Crew… 2.5% of the Time

Half of the lessons in the following sections would not have arisen had there been a sufficiently educated linguist involved. It may be the 9th most unemployable college major in the U.S., but it is going to be incredibly useful when we run into extraterrestrials.

The crew of the original Enterprise always seems very happy to have Hoshi Sato along when they encounter a new and tricky alien language, in Star Trek: Enterprise.

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And where would the Stargate SG-1 team be without linguist and Egyptologist Dr. Daniel Jackson? He's the one who translates the symbols on the ancient stargate and makes it activate, in the original Stargate.

And as Istvan Csicsery-Ronay points out in The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction:

The ability to interpret the language of an alien or mutant group is often the key to power. The near-godlike technology of the Krell civilization in Forbidden Planet is accessible only through the unlikely mediation of a human philologist, Morbius.

Translation Is More Than Equating One Word With Another

In the short story "Story of Your Life," by Ted Chiang, a species of aliens who arrive on Earth experience the space-time continuum in a non-linear way. Hence, the linguist hired to communicate with them has to struggle to understand them in a totally new way. Their verbs are just absurd to her, encompassing as they do entire lifetimes, while her limited concepts of "past" as separate from "present" confuse them.

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"In Blackest Night," a Green Lantern story by Alan Moore, features the conundrum of explaining color to a species that evolved without sight. Poor Katma Tui can't effectively recruit for a corps called "Green Lantern" when the recruitees have no concept of either "green" or "lantern."

Sometimes, An Alien Culture's Worldview is Just Too Different

In C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner, an ambassador visits a race of aliens a few hundred years after an attempted first contact ended in disaster. The aliens' culture is just too discordant with our own — their religion is based on numerology, and the number of words or syllables in a sentence determines how rude or polite it is.

A salesman faces a similar set of problems in David Levine's Hugo-winning story "Tk'Tk'Tk."

What Science Fiction Can Teach Us About Communicating With Other Cultures

And in Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, Valentine Michael Smith comes to Earth after being raised by Martians, and has a hard time understanding Earth concepts such as God, while he also has a hard time explaining Martian terms like "grok" to humans. Eventually, when he founds his own religion, he also teaches Martian language to humans, and that seems to help them develop psychic abilities.

In China Miéville's Embassytown, the Ariekei natives have a language that's almost impossible to speak, because it requires a single mind and two mouths. But when the Ariekei start to understand the human concept of symbolism — language that isn't completely aligned with reality — all hell breaks loose.

In The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, Emilio Sandoz spends a lot of time trying to understand the concept and etymology of the alien word "hasta'akala," which seems to involve being under an alien's protection — but it's something much more horrible than that.

Sometimes, All You Really To Do Is Talk It Out

In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, aliens have been abducting humans for many years, but the purpose behind these abductions remains unclear. The cast cannot figure it out, but it's assumed to be nefarious. However, once some government specialists figure out how to communicate with the aliens using the light and sound of an electrical billboard, the extraterrestrials happily and almost immediately return their human hostages.

Sometimes, You Really Can't Just Talk It Out

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In Doctor Who, the Daleks have no interest in compromise. They have no overarching goal — resources, power, recognition — that you can use as a bargaining chip when entering into a discussion with them. Their only goal is the annihilation of non-Dalek life forms, and if you are a non-Dalek life form, then there is nothing further to discuss.

Sex is a Universal Language

The 2009 Nebula-winning short story, "Spar," by Kij Johnson, is all about how an alien and a human, left alone in a "lifeboat," and despite being a bipedal human and an alien with cilia, still produce the opening line, "In the tiny lifeboat, she and the alien fuck endlessly, relentlessly."

In Farscape, we see that every member of the Moya crew has needs. Frequently. Urgently. No matter what species.

Sex (as in Gender) is not a Universal Language

In Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves, the "soft ones" among the aliens are divided into three, rather than two, sexes. The "lefts" are the logical sex, identified with masculine pronouns and producing sperm. The "mids" are identified with female pronouns and make reproduction possible. The "rights" are identified with masculine pronouns and in charge of raising the children.

In the short story, "That Leviathan Whom Thou Hast Made," by Eric James Stone, a species called the Swales has three genders: male, female, and neuter. It takes three swales to reproduce. They also have no concept of rape (although the entire story revolves around a Mormon missionary who believes one of his Swale congregants has been raped, and tries to get it justice.)

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In Ursula K. LeGuin's novel The Left Hand of Darkness, the inhabitants of the planet Winter are neither male nor female. They have unpredictable sexual urges and identities only once a month, when they enter kemmer. Understanding the concept of "kemmer" becomes a huge linguistic challenge for visiting diplomat Genly Ai, who also has to learn the etymology of the foreign concept of "shifgrethor," meaning a kind of personal self-respect.

The UN Doesn't Become More Effective Just Because You Add More Countries

The entire plot of Babylon 5 demonstrates how to make diplomatic relations fail. Although so many planets are civilized enough to send diplomats to Babylon 5 station, that doesn't stop them from fighting over exploded outposts and assassinations.

The Observer Effect is Unavoidable

If you have ever heard of Schrodinger's cat, then you know that observing an object automatically creates an effect on it. If you do not observe the cat, it could be either alive or dead, and is, in fact, both — until, of course, you open the box and look at it.

Now, that is quantum theory thought. In real-life thought, we believe that a study is not scientifically valid (or ethical) if the observing scientists affect the data. And yet, simply by observing, they cannot help but affect their data.

In Star Trek, this scientific principle takes the shape of the Prime Directive. And yet, in the episode "A Private Little War," the Federation's application of this Directive actually produces an arms race on the planet Neural. Upon discovering that the Klingons have been providing firearms to one village in a war, they then give the other side firearms as a method of "undoing" the Klingon damage.

There is no such thing as terra nullius

This is apparent in a number of works, from Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land to James Cameron's Avatar.