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Is humanity on the brink of receiving interstellar signals from extraterrestrials? Are the hypothetical concepts of alien-human interaction underpinning sci-fi films such as E.T. showing signs of turning into a reality? As “out of this world” as this might seem, there may be some scientific grounds to believe this could be possible.

According to the Guardian, preparations for this event are currently underway. Scientists are reportedly in the process of setting up post-detection hubs in Scotland in order to assess the extent to which Earth is primed for such contact – and how we should respond.

One fundamental concern, however, is the question of how we can possibly communicate with an alien civilisation when we are incapable of communicating with creatures here on Earth…

Upon first reading this article, this concept of alien communication (or in other words ‘alien linguistics’), immediately made me think of the 2016 science fiction drama film Arrival, which stars Amy Adams as a linguist who has been recruited by the United States Army to discover how to communicate with extraterrestrial visitors and decode their language.

In 2018, Denise Chow from MACH interviewed Sheri Wells-Jensen, a linguist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio – and also a leader in the emerging field called ‘alien linguistics’ – to discuss what Arrival got right in its depiction of an alien encounter.

When asked how realistic the film was in such a portrayal of how a linguist might communicate with aliens, Jensen said: ‘The scenes where she [Amy Adams] 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’.

The barrier posed by the lack of a shared language is a key consideration on the question of how humanity would attempt to communicate with a potentially advanced civilisation. But I would agree with Jensen that the mode of communication used to convey an intended message (whether pictorial, visual, or even gestural) does not make it any less of a language. We would need to parse their language structures and decide what we should say to them. When asked this question, Jensen suggested that she would indicate that we (that is, humanity) are here, and that ‘there is intelligence here’, with the expectation that there would be a ‘next step’. The question is, what would that next step be? And who should decide what to send back?

Moreover,  Dr John Elliott, a computational linguist at the University of St Andrews, hopes that any message transmitted from an alien civilisation would be delivered with a language guide. Nonetheless, Ian Sample, the science editor of the Guardian, suggests that even if any message is too unintelligible to be decoded, researchers may still be able to obtain some intelligence from the sender byanalysing ‘the complexity of its structure’.

According to Lewis Dartnell, an astrobiologist and professor of science communication at the University of Westminster, the new post-detection hub is ‘an important step in raising awareness at how ill-prepared we currently are,’ in uncovering any communication from an advanced civilisation.

In sum, the question of how we would communicate with an alien civilisation – or even if we should respond, should an alien civilisation decide to contact us – is clearly fraught with a multitude of complexities. Perhaps we will just have to hope that if and when such an event happens, we will have a robust team of scientists, international researchers and linguists on board to help decipher any signal, and to reach a consensus on whether it is even safe for us to respond at all. But one message is loud and clear: our preparedness as one planet is going to be paramount.

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