[lg policy] Do We Need a Single International Language in Space?

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Wed Jun 13 10:39:15 EDT 2018

 Do We Need a Single International Language in Space?
By Elizabeth Howell, Space.com Contributor | June 13, 2018 07:29am ET

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[image: Partner Series]
[image: Do We Need a Single International Language in Space?]
The Destiny laboratory on the International Space Station.
Credit: NASA

Nowadays, most humans leaving Earth must do so through Russian territory.
Space fliers ride on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which lifts off from a
special parcel of Russian territory
in Kazakhstan. Their spacecraft mission is commanded by a Russian citizen
and a large chunk of their destination — the International Space Station —
has modules and operations in Russian, too.

This means that all astronauts going to the ISS, no matter how many
languages they speak, also need to learn Russian. And astronauts and
cosmonauts all over the world need to learn at least some English to work
with NASA. English is a challenging language for foreigners to learn.

Do we need an international space language? Experts say it may be time to
consider it, especially since the ISS could run out of funding and wrap up
operations in the 2020s
and the space world is changing rapidly. China is a strong space power that
may in the future partner with the Europeans
at the least. And countries all over the world have talked about landing
humans on Mars, another huge effort that would likely require international
collaboration to succeed. [Baikonur Reflections: The Life-Changing
Experience of Witnessing a Soyuz Rocket Launch
How hard is Russian, anyway?

The U.S. State Department's Foreign Service Institute has a scale for
English speakers <https://www.state.gov/m/fsi/sls/c78549.htm> to understand
the difficulty of learning another language. The department ranks Russian
among several "Category II" languages, such as Greek, Icelandic and
Croatian, with "significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from
English. To reach a reasonable level of fluency in Russian, students can
expect to spend 1,100 class hours — plus many hours of individual study
time. That compares to between 575 and 600 hours for languages such as
French, Spanish, Dutch and Afrikaans.

Even astronauts speak about the Russian language's difficulty. Denmark's
first astronaut, Andreas Mogensen, once said that learning Russian was his
biggest challenge <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aD9v-tS1n3M> as he
trained for an International Space Station mission. Former NASA astronaut
Bonnie Dunbar also described the difficulties of learning Russian as she
prepared to live on Russia's Mir space station
<https://www.space.com/19650-mir-space-station.html>. For her first six
months of training, although "you knew the answer, you didn't know how to
say it in Russian. For about six months, I felt like a small child," she
said in an interview published on NASA's website

The NASA astronauts participating in Mir in the 1990s had varying levels of
language training, and tended to do better with more exposure to Russian,
said Megan Ansdell, a postdoctoral fellow in planetary sciences at the
University of California, Berkeley. She wrote a 2012 Space Policy paper
exploring the merits of an international language in space. "The astronauts
often complained of insufficient language training, and all agreed that
better Russian proficiency was necessary for safe operations on the Mir,"
she told Space.com by email.

"Another issue was communication with ground crews, which only spoke
English or Russian; this led to operational inefficiencies, such as the
need to repeat multiple communications with ground crew or miscommunication
of information when working through translators."

The situation is much better for today's NASA astronauts, who receive years
of training in Russian and even participate in home stays with Russian
families to become more familiar with the language. But having two ISS
languages brings operational inefficiencies, Ansdell said. "This has
worked, but led to concerns about safety and efficiency/costs of station
operations due to reliance on translators at mission control centers.
Additionally, the implicit requirement to know both English and Russian can
limit the workforce pool for space station partners whose first language is
neither," she said. [30 Years Later: The Legacy of the Mir Space Station
Choosing another language

But choosing another tongue to speak isn't all that simple. The ISS is
governed in part by memorandums of agreement in which English is usually
the operating language, although there are notable exceptions (such as when
inside the Russian Soyuz spacecraft). Astronauts can operate in their
native tongue in space when speaking with their own ground personnel, but
they need to know at least enough English "to get by," said Michael Dodge,
an assistant professor at the University of North Dakota who specializes in
space law and policy.

"Choosing an international space language could easily fall into one of two
pathways. It could, for instance, become a thorny issue mired in
geopolitical matters. Or, it could be much easier than one would think, as
there are precedents in place already for a variety of space missions," he
told Space.com by email.

"There is already international precedent in the choosing of a single
language for operational necessity, in both aviation and in space. In
aviation, the ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organization] has already
recommended, and since continued to study, the use of English as the
so-called language of aviation. The reason behind this is that having all
operators, from the ATC [air traffic control] personnel to pilots and
onboard crew, all speaking the same language, increases their ability to do
their jobs safely. There have been incidents where a language barrier has
contributed to accidents and fatalities."

Even if a location such as the ISS has an official language, it is OK to
use other ones, he noted; several space law treaties
<https://www.space.com/33440-space-law.html> (including the Outer Space
Treaty and the Moon Agreement) say there are several equally valid legal
languages for spaceflight.

Dodge added that on the ISS, it's unlikely that if a new major participant
came on board (such as China) that there would be a large change in
language policy, mainly because of these safety reasons. But Chinese could
be the language of choice in other situations, he said.

On a Chinese-led Mars mission, for example, participation by other nations
may include a requirement to speak in Mandarin or Cantonese. "Practically,
however, with English being used already in cooperative international
arrangements like the ISS, it feels most likely that it would be chosen for
the language of space, in much the same way as it is for the language of
aviation," Dodge said.

While there is still a lot of debate about which language to use, Ansdell
advocates talking to the astronauts to decide which language is best for
safety as well as the comfort of the crew. As space crews move farther out
in the solar system, they will feel more isolated and language will be even
more important, she said.

"One thing that struck me while looking back through these issues was the
social aspect of language," Ansdell said. "Language clearly impacted crew
integration: when you can't communicate sufficiently, you're isolated, and
that's not a good thing on a long-term space mission to Mars. Also, the
further you get from Earth, the longer the delay in communication back to
the ground; this is a fact that we simply cannot get around, making it even
more important for communication to be as efficient as possible."

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Original article on Space.com


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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