• In the 23rd century, it was displayed that Zefram Cochrane didn't know about universal translator. That's why he was unfamiliar with and asked about its working principle to Kirk (Star Trek: The Original Series). It means, he never encountered universal translator in 21st century when he was on Earth.

  • Data banks of USS Defiant revealed in mirror universe that Hoshi Sato invented universal translator in the prime universe (Star Trek: Enterprise). At the time of first contact, she wasn't even born.

Both points say that Vulcans (the only interstellar party) didn't have universal translator technology at the time of the first contact. When it comes to non-universal species/language specific translator, its possibility was null because that was the first contact.

How did humans and vulcans really communicate during the first contact?

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    Through interpretive dance. Had there been another TNG time travel movie, it was intended to be a musical.
    – John O
    Jan 18, 2013 at 15:28
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    @JohnO I like this answer. I hope someone writes this musical. Shatner and Stewart could have an epic singing duel interrupted by Takei. Jan 18, 2013 at 16:23
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    “How did humans and vulcans really communicate during the first contact?” Awkwardly Mar 21, 2013 at 22:27
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    "Dance of the Pointy Ear"... coming this Fall from the producers of "The Logic Fairy".
    – Omegacron
    Oct 16, 2014 at 20:26
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    Wasn't there a TOS episode where Kirk was given a translator from some advanced alien? I always thought that they reverse engeneered this and that was the source of the things.
    – ths
    Dec 17, 2014 at 11:05

7 Answers 7


They spoke English.

Official first contact didn't happen until 2063 when they detected Zefram Cochrane's first warp flight, but the Vulcans had been watching humans prior to that.

It seems to be a rather closely-guarded secret, as at the end of ENT 2x02, Carbon Creek, T'Pol responded to their questions by saying that she just told them "a story" like they asked. However, it's then shown that she still owns the purse from Earth that her ancestor owned.

The survey ship had originally been sent to investigate the launch of Earth's first satellite, Sputnik.

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    I thought, that was really a story.. :)
    – user931
    Jan 18, 2013 at 13:28
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    so THAT's what happened to all of that mutilated cattle!!! Purses for Vulcans! Jan 18, 2013 at 14:33
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    Even if the Vulcans that landed on Earth did not speak English, it is very possible that they had non-Universal Translators that could translate for them, since as you pointed out, they had been watching Earth for awhile.
    – Xantec
    Jan 18, 2013 at 14:43
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    Though Hoshi created the first human universal translator, and predecessor to the one on the Defiant, as a space faring race I would be surprised if the Vulcans didn't have some form of learning translator. Part of the survey mission that detected the first warp may have included recording ambient radio, and they would have had a hundred years of earth signals in their survey. Jan 31, 2013 at 23:50
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    @TysonoftheNorthwest Universal Translators are mentioned as early as ENT 1x03, so Hoshi's major contribution seems to be automatic+realtime translation. I'd be very surprised if the Vulcans didn't have their own already
    – Izkata
    Nov 13, 2014 at 5:54

I think they had been observing humans for a while then when they detected warp tech they then started first contact. That being said since they observed them for a while they had time to learn the human's language

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    What makes you think this? Your answer could be improved by pointing out things in the shows and/or movies that led you to this conclusion Nov 4, 2015 at 21:53

It's likely that they or other warping species had been monitoring ambient transmissions from the planet since the 20th century. Television. Radio. Orbital spacecraft/space-station exchanges. Surely they'd have the technology and linguistic know-how to be able to decode and grasp meaning from a simple aural language over the several decades they studied Earth before the first warp signature. Some say "first contact" is when the Vulcans were first aware of us. I would venture that this moment was not their "first discovery", if they already happened to be traversing within our solar system (close enough to detect a warp trail).


Maybe humans and Vulcans didn't understand each other's spoken words at first.

The film audience hears the Vulcan officer give the traditional greeting of "Live long and prosper" in the same language spoken by the human characters, followed by Zefram Cochrane's reply of "Thanks". The humans and Vulcans continue to interact afterwards, but the audience does not hear their dialogue.

Star Trek frequently portrays aliens---when they are speaking their own language, especially among themselves---as speaking the same language as the film audience(*).

Perhaps the Vulcan officer spoke the phrase in Vulcan. While the 21st Century humans would not have understood the precise words, they likely would have understood the intent of the peaceful greeting, especially since the Enterprise crew had already informed Cochrane that the Vulcans' mission was peaceful.

Out-of-universe, the familiar Vulcan greeting may have been delivered in the film audience's language to avoid diminishing its impact through subtitles. An in-universe explanation could be that the film audience understood the phrase because the Enterprise landing party heard it and understood it.

(*) Examples:


There was an episode of Voyager where they found Amelia Earhart and several other humans from the time period in stasis. When the Voyager crew let them out at least two of them didn't know English. Everyone spoke then wondered how everyone else in the room was speaking their language. Janeway explained that the universal communicators in the commbadges she and her crew was wearing was the cause. It's possible that with Picard and his crew being present that their commbadges translate, causing the Vulcans to hear Cochrane speak Vulcan and everyone else to hear English.

  • The Enterprise leaves this time before the vulcan ship leaves earth. If this were true (which is doubtful, since the enterprise crew kept their distance from the vulcans), the translation would stop when they leave earth. Jun 29, 2016 at 8:02
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    Picard's crew deliberately did not interact with the Vulcan's on Earth during the events of First Contact
    – NKCampbell
    Mar 16, 2017 at 17:18

How does a Human Being from Russia communicate with a Human Being from Chile today? We use hands and feet and we show what we mean, that is how language was and still is invented.

And down the road we understand each other, it will not happen on April 6th 2063 in the morning hours, but a few years later, we will understand each other and we will visit Vulcan, too!

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    Today they would likely communicate in either Russian/Spanish (possibly with the help of a translator or travel dictionary) or English. There is enough cultural exchange through globalization (as well as cross immigration) that Chilean-Russian encounters are nothing like a first contact situation. A more appropriate analogy is how did early European explorers communicate with indigenous populations in the Americas or Pacific Islanders. Sep 8, 2013 at 0:14

Vulcans are touch telepathic creatures. They might have communicated by this mean and then learnt human languages.

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    Except that the telepathic aspects of Vulcans had been a cultural NO-NO until Archer did a little dance or whatever in that almost good 'katra of Surak' story-arc from Season 4. Jan 22, 2014 at 4:33

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