1. Dymmesdale
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    Dymmesdale New Member

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    Alien characters learning english?

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by Dymmesdale, Nov 11, 2013.

    Sorry if this belongs elsewhere.

    I have several alien characters who need to talk with english speaking human characters. I didn't want to use a cop out like the babelfish, so I have them learning new methods of communication super quickly, as a part of their alien nature. Kind of like Dr. Ransom in Out of the Silent Planet

    2 questions: how much made-up alien language could readers tolerate in dialogue?

    And, could I likely get a suspension of disbelief freebie if I just landed them on Earth speaking perfect English?
     
  2. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Not very much at all.

    Depends on how you structure it. Have they been watching us from afar for millennia? Yeah. Did Smugnort and his lovely wife Meemee get lost and drop in to ask for directions? No. The Star Trek gloss of everyone speaking English works on TV because it has to, otherwise, no show. In a book, the reader is looking for more.
     
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  3. Dymmesdale
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    Dymmesdale New Member

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    What if there was an appendix at the back that translated everything? Or should I just say things like "he rattled off a bunch of weird-ass syllables in a row...i guess he thinks we can understand a lick of it."
     
  4. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    #2. Describe through narrative. :) Do not make you reader go to some appendix. :(
     
  5. wolftamer9
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    wolftamer9 New Member

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    What's the aliens' history with Earth? Is this their first time meeting humans? Maybe they've watched Earth TV and discerned the language from it. I've taken a creative approach to this in my own story, but it required the aliens to know about humans for decades or even a century.

    Edit: They could also be psychic, allowing them to learn English by reading humans' minds or communicating psychically with each other and humans.
     
    Last edited: Nov 11, 2013
  6. Njal
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    Njal Member

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    As Wreybies and wolftamer9 suggest it does depend quite a bit on what's been going on behind the scenes.

    1. They have been observing us.
    - If the aliens know who they are going to be talking to they will speak the local tongue fluently. If they have been predicting on chatting with the Chinese leadership (or just choose Chinese as it is the most widely spoken language) and end up having to quickly shift their plans and make a call on the US President then they will probably lapse into Mandarin occasionally!

    2. They just popped by and have no special language technology.
    - The aliens AND/OR humans will begin a slow learning process. Will the humans learn the alien language, or aliens learn a human language? Or a mixture of the two. Perhaps sentences start to include human and alien words. I would warn against using this device too much as it may become tiresome (unless the alien words are used for genuinely alien things - concepts, objects or terms that do not exist in any human language).

    On a side note - do the aliens have a unified language in their species? If they do not - how do they approach barriers of communication within their own species?

    3. They recently arrived and DO have special language technology.
    - The aliens have a technology which allows them to pick up languages quickly. Perhaps when the aliens first talk to one another their dialogue is completely incomprehensible. But as they communicate more (within a few pages or chapters depending on the power of the technology) the aliens start to use at first simple, and then more complex English (or whatever the native speaker's language is).

    - on the flip side, perhaps the alien technology allows humans to master the alien tongue (Battlefield Earth) by downloading it into their brains.

    4. Babel Fish / Star Trek.
    - Highly advanced technology. So advanced that it must directly manipulate either the sound waves produced by the speaker after they have been spoken or the listener's brain. If this is the case only completely untranslatable words are left untranslated. ... as long as the magical translator device is perfectly synced up to the human race's speech that is. There's always room for error. And incomprehension at some expressions (Darmok, Star Trek: The Next Generation).

    ps: really enjoyed Out of the Silent Planet - needs more readers.
     
  7. Dymmesdale
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    Dymmesdale New Member

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    The way I have it as is, there is not a technology per se, but something about the aliens' nature that allows them to pick up languages quickly. They have a unified language on their home planet, which is actually related to the languages they will be encountering on Earth. They have just met the humans, and haven't had much of a chance to study the language. The idea i am looking for is that the characters will have to work at it, but not the readers.

    So far, i have a handful of sentences and a couple paragraph length bits of alien speech. The grammar is internally consistent, though I doubt any readers would notice or care. The context surrounding the alien speech makes it fairly clear what they are getting at (i hope) without needing a full translation.
     
  8. criticalsexualmass
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    criticalsexualmass Active Member

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    It's a story, it's supposed to entertain. It's important for the reader to understand the difficulty but unless that difficulty is the major plot of the story it's something that i would only give a little attention to. How they learn to communicate (again unless it is the crux of the whole story) is not as important as the fact that they eventually DO learn how. Twenty pages of exposition about the progress will leave the reader looking for something else to read. Perhaps a few alien words that don't directly translate to remind us of their distinct language, a brief explanation as to how they learn English or Swahili or whatever, then on with the story!
     
  9. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Read Niven and Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye.
     
  10. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    I prefer the second option.... Appendix? If you really want this kind of thing go with footnotes, they are easier to access (they are on the same page)... But I think it's gonna make your reader frustrated very quickly...

    As others pointed out when it comes to learning english... it could be interesting if there is a catch there, like if they were to speak like radio propaganda from 30s or if they learned Chinese instead of English... Although, this kind of quirkiness was pretty much overdone in the Cold War era post-modern sci-fi methinks...
     
  11. TWErvin2
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    TWErvin2 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Speaking English? Sometimes it's more than just words. Concepts and how the aliens view the universe has an impact as well.

    In Relic Tech (my SF novel), one race uses a combination of color variation of the skin (like squids) which forms the 'words' and low vibration sounds (like elephants) which provides the stressing and emotion. Written is a pattern of various colored dots (4x4) of various colors which are the 'words' with lines connecting dots to, which provides the connection to emotion. So computers are necessary to translate the thoughts and information between the humans and the Umbelgarri.

    With another race, the Chicher, (basically a cross between a squirrel and a rat) there are direct translators, but the concepts are often not direct translations. Still I've found readers enjoy this.

    Example:
    Note: the alien wears a translation device attached to his harness, and an earpiece in his ear.

    Also, in my novel, there is a very basic hand signing language common between most species as most have some sort of manipulating appendage...still that can be tricky to pick up between species without experience.

    I recently finished a novel (Guardian of Night) where the aliens communicated via odors, which proved very difficult for humanity to translate (and visa versa).

    A television example would be an episode of Star Trek TNG titled Darmock, where the Enterprise encounters a species that they cannot communicate with. Sure, they get the words translated into English, but they the aliens communicate through metaphors, so the phrases and statements made by the aliens are incomprehensible, almost gibberish. It is much the same for the aliens trying to understand the captain and crew of the Enterprise.

    So with all that in mind, I think it's more than learning the words and syntax to really have the ability to converse in a language, especially a language of an alien species.

    But, in the end, it depends on the universe you've created. Technically, English may not even be spoken--just English is used to tell the story to the reader.
     
    Last edited: Nov 14, 2013
  12. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Veeeery little. No appendices, is my recommendation.

    I don't think it'd fly in a novel. I'd find it a little lazy, sorry.
    Maybe they learn the language after a while and then just speak broken English?

    I think Tanya Huff did that with the Valor series. Worked pretty well.
     
  13. Robert_S
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    Robert_S Contributing Member

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    This I don't understand.

    They are capable of interstellar travel, but not able to make a computer that can translate languages within a degree of error that makes it usable?

    My own alien has been watching and waiting for 75 years, learned all the languages of Earth and still uses a translator/synthesizer to vocalize. At the same time, the alien collective do not speak English at all and aren't about to adopt it as the new universal language.
     
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  14. Leigh Silvester
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    Leigh Silvester Member

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    I am currently delving into some early science fiction on my kindle, courtesy of the the Gutenberg Project, and one of them deals with exactly this issue.

    Dotted through one of the chapters are references to the time the narrator spends with the highly intelligent Mecutian female teaching her the rudiments of the language. In subsequent chapters the narrator comments on her improving vocabulary and phrasing.

    I wouldn't say this book was GREAT literature, but it dealt with this aspect in an adequate manner.
     
  15. MLM
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    MLM Banned for trolling

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    I like the old pulp approach to this issue. Everyone in the universe speaks English. And breaths oxygen. And wants earth women.
     
  16. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    @MLM even the green blobs of Jupiter! ...oh, the perversion...
     
  17. The Byzantine Bandit
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    The Byzantine Bandit Member

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    1) How good is your made up language? Is it Tolkien-level or would you just be randomly hitting keys on the keyboard? If it actually has grammar and a lexicon, go for it and include plenty of goof-ups where the aliens attempt to use English words and it doesn't work. For example:
    2) I'd recommend against activating SoD. Give them a plausible way to land speaking English. And include goof-ups of the sort I mentioned above to please the language nerds.
     
  18. Revilo87
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    Revilo87 Member

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    First off make it easy on yourself and have the aliens already knowing english and other earth languages either through years of observation, technology or advanced intelligence.

    As far as the alien language goes, there should be no more than a few words or a single (short) sentence at a time. The words and phrases should not be about ordinary things but describe things that are only uniquely alien. E.G. pretend you have a dialogue between an American who only speaks English and a German visiting the states who is fluent in English as well as his native tongue. Obviously for the sake of conversation the German guy is going to be speaking in English 99% of the time. Now that other 1% could be him saying "Ja, Und, and Gut" a million times which will make him seem like a caricature or you could have him say uniquely German things. (I'm not saying he can't say simple things like "Ja" and "Gut," just don't over do it)
    But for instance if they were talking about bread the German shouldn't say "brot"(bread) because it just means plain old bread and there is an English word for it, but if talking about a unique German breads he could tell the American as käsebrötchen or Franzbrötchen then it's ok to use those terms and describe what they are.
    Like wise you wouldn't have the German guy say a phrase in German that has an english equivalent like "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree" but you could have him say something like "Friede, Freude, Eierkuchen" which means "Peace, Joy, and Pancakes," which is a phrase Germans use to describe when the facade of happiness/"everything's going great" in society but only because people are ignoring problems and actually know there's something wrong.

    Some unique phrases for your alien could include religious phrases, if your aliens are religious. Think about movies where Islam is in play. In "Hildago" and "Kingdom of Heaven" all the characters including the muslim characters speak english throughout the film but still say Islamic phrases like "Salaam alaikum"
     
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  19. novemberjuliet
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    novemberjuliet Member

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    Usually with languages you can write the aliens' dialogue in English and make the reader aware that it's a foreign language. You can italicize their speech or whatever. (You can also just write it normal and outright say it's in whatever language you say it's in.)
    Like others have already said, I think the language barrier would be an interesting barrier or complication in any first encounter story and if they aliens are superior to us than they can have the advantage of speaking small amounts of English (Or Chinese or Indian or Russian, who knows)
     
  20. Bryan Romer
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    The aliens have acquired a multi-lingual electronic tourist phrase book that speaks the phrases aloud, and go around pressing buttons and saying "Where is the lavatory, please?" and "I need a taxi to the hotel"
     
  21. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Or the aliens have fish in whatever passes for ears.
     
  22. criticalsexualmass
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    criticalsexualmass Active Member

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    babel fish! I forgot to even suggest that one.
     
  23. MilesTro
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    MilesTro Active Member

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    If the aliens have the same vocal chords as humans, learning English won't be a problem to them. They have to practice sounding out the English words just like how foreigners learn it. Plus they need to know the words' meaning too. Or they could be psychic aliens who use telepathic powers in order to speak to other beings.
     
  24. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Not just vocal chords. They need something like the structure of the human mouth, or their ability to form the various types of consonants will be limited.
     
  25. MilesTro
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    MilesTro Active Member

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    That too. If they have beaks, they might sound like parrots or Donald Duck.
     

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