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explaining why the aliens speak english

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So I'm writing a book with aliens in it. I want them to be able to speak to the "earthlings" so I can have dialogue between the two groups. I know this is done a lot in sci fi with various explanations, but I keep dithering over which one to use. They all sound clunky when I insert them into my WIP. So I'm asking you, as a reader - which explanations do you like? which ones bug you and why?
Here's what I've thought of so far, tell me if I've left any out:
-some sort of translator gadget
-telepathy that is limited to learning languages (I don't want them to have telepathy for everything....messes with the plot too much)
-they already learned English before coming to earth (they didn't mean to come to earth, they were heading somewhere else, so this is clunky)
-they learn languages very very fast....like within minutes of arriving

Or am I just overthinking this? Should I just stick one in and move on?

Too bad Douglas Adams already took the best one of all...Babel Fish in the ear!
#1 - January 28, 2013, 01:59 PM

I do sort of think you should just commit to one and move on, at least for now. You won't really know if it works until you've tested it in your manuscript. If it's the wrong one, you'll know after you've written it.

If it makes sense given the other details about these Aliens, the "they learn languages very fast" works for me, although I'd be curious how they pick up vocab words before they've heard them. Do they have "brain scanning" powers and can scan someone's computer, or a library, or books, really fast and efficiently?

If they weren't planning to come to Earth, then learning it in advance might be too convenient. (Unless they have just learned tons of languages based on a power to learn quickly, etc.) The translator gadget sounds like it could get in the way unless it's something you are excited to use as a plot point -- i.e. if it's just always "the translator gadget said this, the translater gadget said that" then it feels distracting. If, however, something goes wrong with the translater gadget at some point that then affects the plot, then the gadget is cool.
#2 - January 28, 2013, 02:05 PM
« Last Edit: January 28, 2013, 02:44 PM by ChristineCA »

It probably depends a lot on what sort of story you're writing.  Wacky comedy?  Serious story with very little humor?  Somewhere in between? How technically accurate is your story?  Real science fiction with as realistic and plausible science as you can get it?  More science "fantasy"?

I love this aspect of alien stories, as it's so ridiculous (and you can also mess about with malfunctioning for extra humor).  I think "I'm not speaking English.  By our amazing technology, you're just HEARING English" is standard.  I think it's easier to pull off in books like Smekday, where you can be as silly as you want to be.  But I've also seen it done well in "realistic" alien stories, like Barbary.
#3 - January 28, 2013, 02:06 PM

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Learning it before coming to earth could work, even if they weren't heading here originally. We broadcast a ton of TV and radio around the planet, which all ends up out in space. Maybe they tuned in to our broadcast signals for entertainment on their journeys (long-distance space travel is really boring!) and learned english from that.

(Incidentally, this was used in the book/movie "Contact" I think - one of the first communications from the aliens to earth was the rebroadcast of one of our earliest tv signals.)
#4 - January 28, 2013, 02:11 PM

I guess I lean towards either learning it before they come (implying that they've learned tons of languages, and English just happens to be one) or learning it really fast. But both suggest that the aliens are an advanced, sophisticated race, and I'm not sure that's what you want.

And of course, Jaina is 100% right, it really depends on the style of your book.

Regardless, I'd really like to recommend Clifford Simak's Waystation. A friend recently recommended it to me, and it's so original and thoughtful in how it deals with the diversity of alien cultures and languages. It's an oldie (pubbed in 64!), and for adults, but it's brilliant (and won the Hugo). And it helped me a ton.
#5 - January 28, 2013, 02:39 PM
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Do you have to explain it? If I were talking to an alien, I would probably asked 100 other questions before I asked how they know English.
#6 - January 28, 2013, 02:40 PM

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I like the idea of a translator gadget, plus there could be some humorous/awkward moments when the meaning is confused. Examples: She sure is hot. My friend got fired. That really blows. And swear words/expressions could get really silly and misunderstood.
 :)
#7 - January 28, 2013, 03:32 PM
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Maybe they could just use Google tanslator, like everybody else.
#8 - January 28, 2013, 04:18 PM
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Is it MG or YA? Is the story predominantly humorous or dramatic? Are you going for sci-fi readers, really, or fantasy readers or romance readers with a dash of "not of this world?" I think the answers to all of those questions matter.

I'm kinda hard-nosed about plausibility (which I think is more important for YA than MG, and far more important to real sci-fi readers), but I think those explanations all sound a little, uh... lame. With the translator gadget being the best of the bunch, but even something like that has to be calibrated -- by someone who knows the other language. And since not understanding each other is actually a great opportunity for conflict in the story, why not use it?

That said, if this is a first draft, the advice to just stick something in and continue is wise.
#9 - January 28, 2013, 04:24 PM
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I don't think you are overthinking it at all, Lwrites! I think it's these type of details, even if they are only known to the writer, that add depth and believability to the story. I wanted to echo what some others have said that so much of it depends on the overall tone, humorous versus nuts and bolts scientific explanation. If I were you I'd go to youtube and put in some searches for ET communication, or the like, and see what's kicking around out there. The History Channel's Ancient Aliens is also great to get the brainstorming juices going. :yoda

Yup, Douglas Adams took the best of everything.
#10 - January 28, 2013, 04:42 PM

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Late to the convo and everyone already has pretty said all that there is to say,  ;D but I want to put in my vote for a "universal translator" gadget just because I was raised by Star Trek: TOS. I also agree that Adams had the best idea with the Babel Fish (sigh of envy).

If there is room in the novel, you could go with some sort of a "language" that can be decoded, such as a mathematical communication system. Ted Chiang had a brilliant (and award winning) short story tangentially about such decoding called "The Story of Your Life". It might be worth reading just to give you more ideas.

 :goodluck with it!

Off to find Waystation, thanks, annemleone!
#11 - February 09, 2013, 02:41 PM

I would probably vote for the translator gadget too.
#12 - March 14, 2013, 06:47 AM
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What if all spaceships travel with all known languages in its database and can be "downloaded" into the alien in moments? So they didn't INTEND to go to earth, but it's one of the languages in the database (which it could be even if this race of aliens never ever intended to visit earth or study it, again, because we broadcast so much of it into space.)
#13 - March 19, 2013, 07:57 AM
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What if all spaceships travel with all known languages in its database and can be "downloaded" into the alien in moments? So they didn't INTEND to go to earth, but it's one of the languages in the database (which it could be even if this race of aliens never ever intended to visit earth or study it, again, because we broadcast so much of it into space.)
I like that idea, Jan!  :clapping
#14 - March 19, 2013, 08:15 AM

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BABELFISH! (of course)
#15 - March 20, 2013, 10:35 AM

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There's always . . . coincidence! 

What if it just so happens that the Alien civilization developed its language to be so similar to English that both sides can understand each other's most of the time. The incidents of dissimilarity can pop up in funny ways, if the book is funny, or in ways that have serious/unpleasant consequences, if the book is serious.
#16 - March 21, 2013, 07:44 AM

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