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Ask Dr. SETI ®

Chapter 5: Sociology

Why Would They Speak English?

Dear Dr. SETI:
I notice that the Invitation to ETI website (, which attempts to establish contact with extraterrestrial intelligence via its Web presence, is written entirely in English. Do you really expect that an alien lifeform would be able to read English? After all, more than 68% of Earth's residents can't. Just wondering!

Loner (via email)

The Doctor Responds:
Very good question, fellow English speaker! Realistically speaking, an alien lifeform would probably not understand any of Earth's natural languages. The one language we and ETI are most likely to have in common is mathematics. However, an advanced interstellar robotic probe (arguably an equally likely form of contact) could be expected to possess advanced artificial intelligence, which could teach itself to interpret any Earth language from context. We already have computer systems on this planet that can come close to such accomplishments, so it is reasonable to expect that more advanced civilizations will have developed such technology.

If I'm right about this, then perhaps we'll eventually find ourselves a little less alone. If not, then you will doubtless remain a loner.

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