If everywhere my characters went they had to learn the local language first before they could communicate, not much would happen. Every story would be slow, tedious, and confusing. Star Trek tries to solve this by use of universal translators, but these are blatantly impossible to the point of being silly. Meaning is contextual. In order for translation to be perfect, one must have perfect knowledge, completely removing the mystery and excitement of discovery.
I hit upon an alternative for my universe. What if there was only one universal language? Children understand that cats talk like cats (meow), dogs talk like dogs (woof), owls talk like owls (hoot), and humans talk like humans (go to your room!). My example, of course, is in English. In reality, MOST humans do not talk like (English-speaking) humans. In every day life, we expect others to understand what we mean and we never stop to think about it. Language feels like a given. For someone who has never been exposed to the idea that other languages are possible, let alone exist, it can come as quite a shock when they hear a foreigner babbling like an idiot. I thought that perhaps in my universe, every sentient being could be born knowing the one universal language. I also thought there might be no babies, since their presence would show that language is learned.
I thought that many new objects could be discovered without knowing the names, but when new names were mentioned, they could immediately put into the mind of the listener the knowledge of what those names represent (in the same way that a descriptive name would). Someone seeing a feather for the first time would not know what to call it, but someone hearing the word “feather” for the first time would immediately know without being told what a feather was.
This went fine for a while, but then I ran into problems. If language is not learned, there could never be a misunderstanding or a case of someone asking what something meant. This not only makes reading the stories boring, but makes writing the stories very difficult. A worse problem is that I would have to explain all new science fiction concepts to the reader by narration instead of dialogue, since no character would ever ask what a word meant. Another problem is that part of what the series is about is showing kids have experiences new to them that are normal for us. Misunderstandings are cute.
On the other hand, if language is learned, isolated communities that have never been in contact with other planets could not have the same language. No universal language could exist. Would an isolated world that independently invents clocks call them by the same name, or would clocks then be known to all by two names?
I started to solve this by having two levels to language – that which is inherently known and that which is taught. Now I can’t keep straight which words are which. It is just too much to remember. Then my characters encountered a group that uses slang and I got really confused.
I am so discouraged right now.