Translations in Science Fiction
So. Science Fiction. You know how when humans meet a new alien species, the aliens tend to speak to them in English. Well, at least in cheap science fiction. Or if its a Japanese Anime, the aliens know Japanese. Its a problem that writers have to face when they make these first contacts. Of course they want some sort of communication between the two parties, but it's always a matter of how they communicate. Sometimes the aliens just come in speaking the native language and call it good. Strangely, you never see science fiction where the aliens come in and start speaking in some other human language, like French or Spanish (in an English story, anyway, I'm sure that's exactly what the aliens speak in French and Spanish shows.) It would be interesting if the aliens came down and started speaking in some obscure earth language that only a few people knew. Like Maori. They'd come down and start asking about Tohunga, and we'd correct them and say "The term is now Matoran" and they'd be all confused.
One solution I've seen used quite a bit is that the aliens learn English (or whatever) after viewing our extensive media. That's what they did in Transformers, I'm pretty sure it happened at least once on Star Trek, and it happened with the fountain-shaped aliens from that one obscure science fiction story whose plot I remember but not the title or author. Basically, the aliens were quick studies, and after a couple of hours of watching sitcom reruns (or something) they come back speaking great English and communication starts up right away. (And then the misunderstandings come in other forms, like "Oh my I didn't know that hitting your kind there would kill them, my bad.")
But this seems too simple. Why? because it's hard to pick up a language. I took Spanish for three years in high school, and the only phrases I can really remember are along the lines of greetings and saying "There's a flaming cat in the library." (Es un gato de fuego en la bibliotecha?) Even people who are good can't just pick up a new language in a few days by watching some media. Most of the bilingual people I know said they did best by emerging themselves in the new culture for years. Either that or they learned multiple languages as kids. (That's because our brains are hardwired to learn languages when we're young, but not so much when we're older, so if we really want to learn new languages, we need to do it before we're six. Hey, I learned this in an Anthropology class, so it must be true!) To put a long story short: hard to learn new languages.
So thus, it is assumed that aliens are quick studies. Maybe there's some validity behind this. If they're space traveling people, they can't be complete morons. And maybe the ones making first contact (intentionally) are especially good at learning new languages, because that really is the best way to start peaceful communications. But I find it hard to believe that every alien would have the sort of quick-learn capabilities to pick up a new language, and when they claim to do so after watching some TV or other earth transition, I say "cheap plot element." (And again, why'd they single out English media; I'm sure there are lots of Spanish channels out there too, so why don't they speak in some sort of odd hybrid language that includes a bit of every earth language?)
Another solution I've seen used is telepathy. I'm sure there are other examples of its usage, but I'll just jump straight to my source: Animorphs. The books actually did a good job of including the alien language barrier. Sure, all the Yeerks know English, but hey they get that from investing humans and learning it from them, so yeah explained. But how do Andalites and other species communicate so well via thoughtspeak? I get the general idea; your basic thoughts get passed along without really needing words. But the Animorphs were very articulate in their thoughtspeak, and at least in one case Ax thoughtspoke with another alien in a language different than English. (It was like Galard, the international language between aliens.) So sometimes thoughtspeak seemed stretched when they made new encounters with aliens not familiar with earth. (Now when they were thoughtspeaking amongst themselves, not a problem using words, so whatever.)
But really, science fiction likes to find simple and fast ways around the communication barrier. After all, it would make for a lame story if both sides were completely unable to communicate, and the readers don't want to spend years as the characters immerse themselves in the new culture and slowly get a handle on the new language. (And learn the nouns, verb, grammar... assuming that alien languages follow the same structure as earth languages. Which some Anthropologist linguists might argue for, cause there's apparently a similar pattern to all languages anyway.) And its not like this is completely unfamiliar territory; explorers in the Americas had to find ways to communicate with the natives, and although they didn't understand each others languages, they were still able to communicate. ("Here, have some pretty beads and give me all your gold. Oh, and have some germs too, so they'll wipe out your entire civilization for us.") Really, extraterrestrial first encounters are just futuristic replicas of the good ol' days of exploration, just with simpler means of translations. Lewis and Clark, for example, had to go through like four or five translators to communicate with the natives they came across. Wouldn't it have just been better if the natives had come across some English media floating in the river ahead of the explorers and learned the language before Lewis and Clark even showed up? (Speaking of which, why aren't there more spreads of disease in this alien first encounters? Yeah, I know that was a major plot point for War of the Worlds, and it happened at least once in Animorphs, but there's not a lot of accidental flu spreading amongst new alien species. Hmm.)
Then again, some works of science fiction don't even bother trying to find a logical explanation. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy just hands all the grunt work to the Babel Fish and calls it good. Dr. Who just explains it away as something the Tardis is responsible for. (Or is it the Doctor himself? I dunno, I'm still only midway through season two of the current series.) These are examples of work that just say "Screw it, we're ignoring this problem." (I would say both are works of parody against science fiction, because seriously how can people take Dr. Who seriously? But to be fair, HHGttG is some groundbreaking fiction, and it seems disgraceful to call it just a parody.) (Ha, see what I did there?)
And if you're all TL/DR, just go for the last paragraph, that's the best joke / troll of the entire entry.