The Current

If there are aliens, how can we communicate?

Talking to aliens is not a just strictly theoretical, sci-fi question for the movies. Humans are actively trying to make contact with any intelligent life in the universe today.
Amy Adams (right) plays Louise Banks in the film Arrival that tells the story of communicating with aliens here on earth. (Jan Thijs/Paramount Pictures)

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The film Arrival tells the story of massive alien pods that have landed, and a linguist — played by Amy Adams — is tasked with trying to communicate with the beings inside.

While the film is a fictional thriller, it does raise some of the same questions actual scientists have been pondering for years now: How we would communicate with extraterrestrials if they were encountered, and, for that matter, whether we should be trying to make contact with them at all.

Douglas Vakoch is not just listening out for aliens far away — he actively wants to reach out to them.

Vakoch is the president of METI International, a nonprofit research and educational organization dedicated to messaging extraterrestrial intelligence.

He says that he was "incredibly jealous" watching Arrival and says simplifying ways to communicate is how one should engage with aliens.

"You can't assume that they're going to know English or French or Swahili or any other language like ours," Vakoch tells The Current's Friday host Duncan McCue.

"You've got to try to find a universal language that any civilization is going to know no matter what their biology or evolution."

'Should we just go running through the forests shouting 'Yoo hoo'?'

Not everyone agrees reaching out to aliens is a good idea. David Brin, an astrophysicist and science fiction author, warns aliens out there could be "older, wiser and more technologically advanced" and may know something we don't know.

"Is the right thing to do, to listen and learn, and look around, and try to find out what's going on?" questions Brin.

"At a time like that should we just go running through the forests shouting 'Yoo hoo'?"

Vakoch argues we're already shouting Yoo-Hoo on CBC, just like with other radio and television stations around the world.

"So we are making ourselves known to other civilizations. Any civilization just a tiny bit more advanced than we are would be able to pick up these accidental missives that we're sending out."

He points out METI hopes to not only make ourselves known for the first time but to say, "we want contact."

Jessica Coon, professor of linguistics at McGill University, was consulted for Arrival. She tells McCue there are fundamental principles that all human languages have in common but an alien communication system is so unknown.

"We have no idea how different … an alien cognitive system, or perceptual system might be," Coon says.,

Louise Banks played by Amy Adams, meets the aliens for the first time in Arrival. (FilmNation Entertainment)

"But I think you know the tools that we use in linguistics in looking for patterns, in the grammars, and you know eliciting different words or sentences in different contexts, these are exactly the tools that somebody would use when trying to decipher an alien language. And that's what you see represented in the film."

From a linguistic perspective, Coon tells McCue the film did a good job representing the basics of how a linguist would go about decoding a language.

"In any field work situation you can't go straight to a big theoretical question without understanding all of the smaller working parts of the grammar," says Coon. 

"So I think you know the the the writer of the screenplay Eric Heisserer, he said at some point we can't go into the details of the language otherwise you would just be watching a TED talk."

"You wouldn't be watching a movie."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Liz Hoath and Karin Marley.