“Arrival” Movie Review

Main character is a linguist? Better make sure to write a review, every linguist everywhere! Here are my thoughts. (If you haven’t seen Arrival, but want to know the basic story, it’s based on the Ted Chiang story “Story of Your Life“) The basic premise is: a bunch of aliens land on earth, but we have no idea how to talk to them, so the US goverment recruits a linguist to figure out their purpose on earth.

I thought the movie did a good job of portraying how misunderstood linguists are by other professionals, as well as showing a bit of what linguistic work is like.
Translation takes knowledge of both languages
The military comes to Amy Adams’ character Louise wanting her to translate the alien language from a sound recording, based on the fact that she had translated some Farsi for the government before. Translating a language that has already been studied, like Farsi, is actually possible. But it’s impossible to just listen to a recording and know what’s being said if the translator has not learned the other language. Linguistics is science, not magic.

Linguistics (un)comfortably straddles the division between science and humanities
Ian, the other academic recruited by the military to help understanding the aliens (he’s a physicist), compliments Louise on treating language like a mathematician. She looks at him like “how else would I do this?”, which is probably how any linguist would respond. Linguistics is a very analytical field. We find patterns and correlations. We are working with language, something that everyone can have an opinion on because everyone has to study at least their native language in school. But that doesn’t mean we approach language the same way an English major or an English teacher would. We really are looking at the structures and patterns that underlie the words that come out of out mouths. And that does have more in common with mathematical study than the study of literature. That doesn’t mean we are unconcerned with social and cultural aspects of language. But just that we would also approach those from a more analytical rather than subjective viewpoint.

Linguists are not necessarily polyglots
The military commander asks Louise “do you know Mandarin?” before handing her a recording to translate. He doesn’t look surprised when she does, though I was. While this is certainly possible for a linguist, it’s a little unbelievable that she’s able to translate both Farsi and Mandarin for the government, as well as being skilled in fieldwork. Linguists are not necessarily great at learning to speak other languages. And it’s definitely possible to do fieldwork in a language without becoming fluent in that language.

What linguistic work looks like

Overall, I think the movie did a good job of portraying a linguist’s life, as much as it showed Louise at work. Collecting lots of data before you can really draw any conclusions. Trying out different hypotheses to see which hold up to the data. Looking at little details other people gloss over. Finding patterns in order to move on to the next step. However, there was a point in the movie where it went into sort of a montage of “learning about the aliens!” which I think kinda skipped over some important steps in what a real first contact situation would be. It skipped right from learning the first word in the alien language, “human”, to having Louise start to dream/think in the alien language. I know not all movies can be like The Martian, showing all the science along the way, but I just wish there had been a little more development before we jumped straight to knowing the alien language.

My biggest problem: hard core doubling down on linguistic determinism
Linguistic determinism, also known as the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” is the idea that the language you speak determines the thoughts you can think. Cross-cultural color perception studies  are some of the evidence for this. I’ll describe the experiment, but watching a video of one will be more useful.  Say a person speaks a language without a word for the color blue. If you show them a bunch of shades of green and one shade of blue, they will not be able to pick out the shade that is different, whereas an English speaker, say, would have no trouble picking out the blue one. And it works the other way too. That language might not have a word for blue, but they have a word for a specific shade of green. So speakers of that language can easily pick out the different one from a bunch of shades of green, where the English speaker could not.

Ok, so this shows that language determines how we perceive the world, right?? I mean, maybe. But we can’t give language too much credit. Many linguists believe that these results have more to do with culture as a whole than language apart from culture. If you live off the land and have to identify plants every day to survive, of course you are going to be more experienced at picking out different shades of green. It’s not impossible that language makes the difference, but I think it’s important not to divorce words from their context. It’s important to remember that babies (with normal cognition and hearing), whether they are born to parents in Thailand or Namibia, have the potential to learn any language. Human cognition has a universal potential, and constraining (or expanding) that potential on the basis of language alone is a very strong position that not nearly all linguists hold today.

This comes into the movie when Louise, who, out of all the humans in the world, seems to be the best at learning the alien’s language, and begins to perceive time in the same way the aliens do: non-linearly. Just like if an English speaker were to spend time learning a different language’s words for green and could start to see the differences. Ok, cool. Except that alien cognition and human cognition should not be so compatible! Humans can learn another human language and begin to see the world differently, maybe. Humans all have the same cognitive potential at least. But it’s a pretty big stretch to believe that humans should be able to do the same with an alien species.

It’s sort of like the myth that humans only use 10% of their brains.  It’s a cool premise for scifi, but it just isn’t supported by data. Humans haven’t evolved the potential to perceive time in the way the aliens have. We can’t even really understand non-human animals on earth; our brains are just too different. Aliens, with a completely different evolutionary history, would probably not have similar enough cognition for us to have compatible perception in the way shown in the movie. It would be like teaching a cat English. Maybe at some point they could recognize sound patterns, but there’s no evidence that the cat’s cognition would change to become more human-like.
Tl;dr: Arrival did a pretty good job of showing what linguistics and being a linguist are like. But, like most scifi, it goes too far with the concepts into the realm of incredulity.

For some more linguists’ views on the movie, including the linguist consultants for the production, check out The Ling Space’s video.

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