Competition S6: winning entries

Thank you very much to everyone who submitted an entry to Competition S6, based on Dr Elizabeth Wonnacott’s lecture on ‘How do children learn language?’ Below you can read the winning entry, as selected by our team of markers.

The challenge:

Click here to read an article from Scientific American, on “How Linguists Would Talk to Extraterrestrials”. The article discusses how different cultures can learn to communicate, even when they have no shared language to ‘translate’ between.

Professor Jesse Snedeker, Harvard University, poses a question in this article, which is paraphrased here: ‘If aliens landed on Earth tomorrow, would humans be able to learn their language?’

Kuba’s winning entry

While there are many factors which would make it more difficult for humans to be able to learn an alien’s language, I think that it would be possible to create basic communication. This is mainly due to the fact that actions, more often than not, speak louder than words. For example, say that you wanted to communicate to aliens that their actions, in “human” society were considered morally wrong. If you showed them the physical and negative consequences of that, you could then show them that what they have done is not acceptable.

However, it is evident that there are challenges faced when trying to explain what is considered wrong or right, as this is something that is embedded into the culture on Earth, which could be extremely different to the culture aliens have. Everett spent more than 30 years working with a language isolate, the last surviving members of a language family, of the Amazon in Brazil. Through his research he discovered that they didn’t have a concept of counting numbers or directions like left or right. This indicates that communicating with aliens could be difficult, because they may not deal with time, numbers, directions or other logical concepts in the same way.

It may be possible to overcome such barriers using the technology we have available to us. Observing patterns that are made with aliens, and seeing how they would communicate to each other that they want to turn right, perhaps, could be analysed using technology to predict how they would communicate something similar. Therefore, overall, looking at their actions could help us first understand their cultural differences, and give humans a starting point in understanding aliens.