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By Denise Chow

If earthlings ever make contact with intelligent space aliens, will we be able to understand them? We use a language of spoken and written words, of course, but aliens might use numbers, shapes, tones or something beyond our imagining. Will we know how to respond to them — and what to say?

That’s where Sheri Wells-Jensen comes in. A linguist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, Wells-Jensen is also a leader in an emerging field that some call alien linguistics — though she’s quick to point out that the term is a bit premature since “we have no alien languages.” Not yet anyway.

Recently, MACH’s Denise Chow spoke with Jensen about what it would take for us to be able to communicate effectively with extraterrestrials and whether the 2016 film “Arrival” offers an accurate portrayal of an alien encounter. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

MACH: The idea of making contact with aliens is a mainstay of science fiction. But when did it become clear among linguists and other experts that we should think seriously about how we might communicate with extraterrestrials?

Jensen: We used to sort of gaze up into the sky and go, "Oh, stars. They're lovely. Wouldn't it be nice if someone were looking back at us and hoping that we're here." But now we know there are planets, and now we know there are habitable planets. You could point to a specific star and say: "That star there has a habitable planet. Is there anyone living there?" That makes a huge emotional difference. If you can point to a place and ask, "Is there intelligence living in that place?" It's a whole different question than "I wonder if this could possibly, maybe, somehow, imaginably be true?"

What exactly is alien linguistics?

It is the discipline of getting ready. If something marvelous is going to happen, and you have the idea that the marvelous thing is afoot, you can just sit back and think, “We'll get a call, we'll get a message, it'll be fantastic.” Or you could lay some groundwork.

What we're doing now is kind of taking our responsibility as scientists seriously, and doing some of the preparatory work that we are capable of doing now — which isn't a lot, but there are things we can do to get ready. Our responsibility is to make intellectual, emotional, ethical, spiritual preparations for what's to come.

Let me ask you an even more basic question: What is language?

I think the answer is a resounding "um." We don't really know. We don't know where it came from. We experience language, we use it every day, and I continue to think about it. I can tell you about its relative complexity as compared to other forms of communication from other species on Earth. I can tell you things about what language does. But the definition of language is a social object, not a scientific object.

Image: Sheri Wells-Jensen
Sheri Wells-Jensen is an associate professor of linguistics at Bowling Green State University and a leader in the emerging field of "alien linguistics."Claire Wells-Jensen

Mostly, people know language when they experience it — real language, as separate from communication. Lots of animals communicate. My cat communicates with me very clearly, and instructs me with what I am to do, very clearly. But she does not have language, and the line between communication and language feels mushy until I say to my cat: "Hello, how was your day? Please tell me three things that you did that amused you today." And she just, you know, does the food meow back. So the exact borders between communication and language feel mushy, but we know when we experience one or the other.

What if aliens make contact, but their way of communicating is vastly different from our own? What would you do as a linguist to try to understand them?

This presumes that we have a face-to-face interaction, which is probably not how it will go down. We are much more likely to have to deal with a more prosaic radio signal. Superficially, this sounds disappointing. Everybody wants the saucer on the White House lawn scenario, and the radio signals feel like a distant second best. But actually, the radio signal confirming that we are not alone would rock my personal world and probably most of the rest of everybody’s world, too.

But it doesn’t matter much what the medium is — swirls of color, vocalizations, hand or tentacle gestures — as long as we have two things.

One, a language which is learnable — which, depending on how alien they are, we might not have. There are at least two hypotheses here: the folks who think that for a language to be a language, it will possess a core similar to our own, so we could learn it, and the folks who think that alien bodies and environment might be dramatically different from ours and this might cause their language to be correspondingly different, and so un-learnable.

Two, [we'd need] an agreed-upon context so we could start learning each other’s words. As a linguist, in a new language-learning situation, I rely a lot on context. If I don’t know your language and I walk up to you, make a quizzical face, hold up an apple, point to it, you would get the idea that I want the word for “apple.” So you’d say “apple,” and if I did it again, you’d say “apple” again. That is, you’d get that idea if you and I understood that language learning is the game we are playing.

If we don’t agree that language learning is what we are doing, you might think I am giving you the apple, threatening you with the apple, using the apple to show how mighty I am, showing you the shape of my hand and on and on. We have to agree that we are taking time to learn language now and that the “right” thing to do is give simple, one-word-long-ish responses. For example, if I did this apple pose, and you understood that I want to learn your language, you would not say to me, “Oh, you are standing on your two feet wearing pants and a jacket breathing oxygen, using both lungs and your left hand is raised 1.8 meters above the floor and you have an apple in your hand and there are no tigers, elephants or cakes of frozen sea ice anywhere near you.”

The thing a linguist can bring to this situation is perhaps first to have some beginning of an understanding about all the many, many ways this can go wrong and be alert to as many of these as possible. The other thing is that a linguist is trained to conduct a systematic exploration of the language, figure out how sentences are put together, logically explore vocabulary and syntax and search out ways in which the rules of conversation might lead us to misunderstand one another.

Is it possible that an alien civilization has tried contacting us but we simply didn't understand it?

It's possible. If they sent a radio signal in the 1700s — if they tried to communicate with us by radio before we had radio, they would've gotten nothing.

You’re involved with an organization called Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or METI. What is that?

So SETI is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The idea of METI is that if you're going to have a conversation, there are two people who can say hello. SETI is mostly for them [aliens] to say “hello,” and METI is Earth saying “hello.” So it is the idea that to join the conversation, you have to say something.

Some people oppose the idea of actively seeking contact with aliens, fearing that if they do exist they might be hostile. Where do you stand on that?

It's really important to take ethical reservations on this very seriously, because we're all kind of together, dealing with the possibilities. So if you are respectful, you want to listen to other folks whose opinions differ and try to come to an agreement. Whether all of Earth can come to an agreement, I don't know. I mean, I have trouble when there are six people in my house agreeing on what to put on a pizza.

So are we going to all agree about what to say on behalf of all the planet? I'm thinking that that's not likely. But the thing that we can do immediately is enter into conversation with one another respectfully, and start thinking through, as a community, what we would like to say and if we would like to say anything.

Does “Arrival” give a realistic portrayal of how a linguist might try to communicate with aliens?

Everybody loves “Arrival.” Everybody wants to be Amy Adams [who plays a linguist who learns to communicate with aliens]. The scenes where she was doing the fieldwork, where she was up against the barrier — if you don't share a language in common, that's kind of how you do it. You get right in there and you point to things, and you try to pick things up, and show people things. Whether you represent your language pictorially or auditorily, or however you do it, it's still a language.

If you could send a message to an alien civilization, what would you want to say?

That's a complicated question. It's hard to communicate with people you don't know. If you look at us just trying to communicate with one another, we're not so good at it. We don't think carefully and respectfully about each other's needs. We struggle to communicate, and sometimes fail. So if we're trying to communicate with someone and we don't even know who that someone is, I think it's reasonable to expect to be profoundly misunderstood.

Honestly, the only thing I would say is "One, three, five, seven, eleven, thirteen" [listing prime numbers]. I would like to send a message that indicates that we're here. Because anything I personally would choose is completely a bad idea, because I'm only one person. So I would just like to say that there is intelligence here, and make my message as simple as possible with the expectation that there will be a next step.

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