Classroom Activities: Space Language

Artist's rendering of a Mars Exploration Rover.

Here’s a langauge-based activity for very young students.  The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is actively searching for aliens in planets that NASA thinks show potential for life.  You can read NPR’s coverage of this search in the link below.  The question to ask your students: how will SETI know if they’ve found an alien langauge being beamed into space? 

  This is one area where science and science fiction intersects with linguistics.  In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, humans used music to communicate with the aliens who came to visit.  How would your students go about it?  What kind of language do they think the aliens would use?  Would they use voices or colors or music or all ten of their hands to communicate? Would the aliens’ language be spoken or signed or sung or danced or projected from their foreheads like a laser-light show? 

You can go beyond the traditional science fiction interpretation of aliens as a single, cohesive group, and ask students what kind of social structure the alien’s langauge might reflect.  Would all of the aliens have the same kind of language? Would they have different “countries” on their planet?  How much might the languages of these different countries be like each other?  Would it be like comparing English to Japanese or Kswahili?  Would boy aliens and girl aliens ‘sound’ the same?  Why or why not? What other sub-groups might have different language styles?  Would older aliens sound like younger aliens? How would we know which aliens were in charge of the group we encountered?

Perhaps, more importantly, ask your students how people would react to such an encounter.  How would we learn their language(s)?  What would we say to each other?  

You can see how this exercise engages students on a number of very intellectual discussions about the nature of language, its acquisition, and the manners in which we use language to project our identity to the world.  

Tuning In Space Noise For Sounds Of Life : NPR.


About LingEducator

Dr. Jaclyn Ocumpaugh received a PhD for her dissertation on regional variation in the acoustics of Mexican American English (Michigan State University, East Lansing). Before that, she received an MA in English/Linguistics from North Carolina State University for her work on the acoustics of /r/--a sound which is highly variable in the English language. Her passion, however, has always been to understand the social implications of language variation. In addition to her work in acoustic sociophonetics, she has worked with rape trial analysis, developed cognitive methods for understanding discourse level variation between men and women, and created sophisticated tools for teaching future educators about the kinds of dialect variation they will find in the classroom. She has taught classes in English, Linguistics, and Education at Old Dominion University, William & Mary, the University of Mary Washington, and Virginia Wesleyan College. She is currently a Post Doctoral Fellow of Learning Sciences and Technologies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where she is helping to develop models of student engagement in the classroom. She also consults in the private sector.
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