One of the most common “conceits” of modern science fiction, in particular televised sci-fi, is that aliens just happen to speak English. Shows like “Star Trek” and “Dr. Who” explain this away by claiming that the aliens actually are speaking alienese, but that the shipboard “universal translator” or the TARDIS are translating on the fly.
In reality, when and if we get out there and stumble across another intelligent species, figuring out how to communicate with them is probably going to be nightmarishly difficult. And if what we find is not a living culture, but instead the archaeological remains of a long-dead civilization, how do you even begin to try to translate fragments of an alien written language?
Not a problem that’ll be resolved easily or anytime soon. There is, however, hope that computerized translation systems just might be up to the challenge:
The lost language of Ugaritic was last spoken 3,500 years ago. It survives on just a few tablets, and linguists could only translate it with years of hard work and plenty of luck. A computer deciphered it in hours.
In this case, the computer was able to use Ugartic’s similarity to Hebrew to speed things along. Alienese is, of course, highly unlikely to be related to Hebrew or any other Human language. Still, it’s a start.