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How fast could a new language be translated?

Posted: Mon Apr 30, 2018 6:09 pm UTC
by jseah
If this better belongs in Fictional Science, can the mods please move it?

In an almost ideal scenario, how fast can two societies, who do not speak the same language, manage to translate each other's words?

The scenario I am considering is:
Two reasonably advanced countries (similar to modern day 1st world country) come into radio contact with each other. It's an ISOT scenario here so there hasn't been any previous contact between them before, and in fact, the two countries come from totally different realities so their technology, animals and even food aren't the same.

No hostilities have broken out and both sides have managed to open an audio/video channel over radio. Up to 50+ parallel conversations could be feasibly established.
Both are recognizably human (meaning the languages are composed of sounds that a human could make and they both think like humans).
Obviously, both of them will record every single byte sent over the channel and review it.
Both sides have established a Contact team whose job is to learn the other language, the Contact teams have shifts and are prepared to work on this 24/7. This effort is being pushed heavily by the governments and while none of them are incompetent, no superhuman learning speeds are present.
Only two languages are assumed to be spoken here.

So starting from basically knowing nothing about the other side, how quickly can they learn to communicate enough to effect a diplomatic meeting for trade?
(meaning there's no need to understand the full nuances of the language; clear meaningful communication is sufficient)
Would 1 week be enough to do this?

What sort of inferences could be made about the other culture, technology base, misc. information that might be inadvertently transmitted despite both governments not wanting their Contact teams to leak anything?

Re: How fast could a new language be translated?

Posted: Mon Apr 30, 2018 9:47 pm UTC
We have a real-world upper bound on this of 28 years because we know that Cortés managed to get alliances and negotiate agreements with natives during his conquest of Mexico and Tenochtitlan fell 28 years after Columbus' first voyage and the first contact between the Spanish and any American peoples and given the wide spread of the Taíno peoples encountered by Columbus, it's plausible that a Nahuatl-speaker could have been found shortly after Columbus' first voyage with the remaining time taken up by the Taíno+Nahuatl speaker learning Spanish or the Spanish speaker learning Taíno.

Of course, when at least one side is willing to communicate in bad faith (as Cortés was) and so doesn't really need to communicate accurately, they don't really need their interpreter(s) to actually have a particularly good understanding of Spanish (or Nahuatl) so it's possible that this bound isn't as tight as you might think.

That said, there are various rough estimates that, under total immersion, practising your target language moreorless every waking hour it'll take about two years to be fluent (this is based on the somewhat arbitrary 10000 hours = expert idea so take it with a pinch of salt but it probably isn't far off at least a reasonable) so it's entirely plausible there were kidnapped Taíno slaves speaking fluent Spanish before 1495.

It's possible linguists might be able to produce a decent grammar of a language sooner, but as we have yet to discover a better method of language learning than immersion, it seems likely that the best way of learning would be to simply have members of each society's teams live their lives moreorless as usual but with the audio+video link to the other team as well whilst trying to chat as best they can. After two years or so, the teams should all be proficient speakers of the other language.

Re: How fast could a new language be translated?

Posted: Tue May 01, 2018 12:47 am UTC
by ThirdParty
Trade doesn't really require words, does it? Each side shows what they're offering, indicates how much they want for it out of what the other side is offering, and then either agrees or doesn't agree. A fifteen-second cartoon would be enough to establish a workable protocol.

There could be problems with the governments being too paranoid about leaking information to be willing to say what they're offering or what they want, problems with them being too untrusting to believe that they'll receive what the other side is offering, and/or problems with learning enough about the other universe's physics to make use of anything the other side can offer--but none of these are linguistic problems per se.

Re: How fast could a new language be translated?

Posted: Tue May 01, 2018 3:11 am UTC
by jseah
Well, the UN trying to communicate something like "we recognize you as a state" and start to negotiate exactly where borders lie would require a bit more complexity than a cartoon. How could you communicate something as abstract as the UN's rules for embassies?

Then there's trade agreements when both sides don't have the same technological base (indeed, one side is functionally magitech and the other is modern day), an internationally competitive situation where different countries want different deals.

So no, I don't think cartoons would be sufficient.

That said, the speakers don't have to be completely fluent either. There will be a lot of referring to a noun dictionary, the initial communications could end up being restricted to only a selected set of sentence structures.

They don't have to be able to talk to each other in real time, just gain enough of an understanding that communication of complex concepts is possible.

Re: How fast could a new language be translated?

Posted: Tue Jun 05, 2018 10:32 pm UTC
I just had another thought on this which is that, if you're willing to be wildly unethical and raise infants spoken to 50% by the people on the other side and 50% by our people, after a few years the kid should be reliably speaking both languages. Of course, then you have to convince the kid to translate stuff which may be tricky.

Obviously this method would also be easier if you have physical contact so can have the kid raised by the people from the other side as well as you but if it's only speech that can be sent between the sides that may slow things down.

Re: How fast could a new language be translated?

Posted: Tue Sep 04, 2018 7:03 pm UTC
by SuicideJunkie
Doing that with just one kid leaves you open to flaws in cookie security.

Re: How fast could a new language be translated?

Posted: Tue Sep 04, 2018 7:07 pm UTC
by Soupspoon