"Arrival" is a really positive representation of linguistics and language learning

Arrival is a fantastic piece of science fiction. 12 (peaceful) alien spaceships arrive on earth, and a linguist is recruited to establish communication while the world at large slips into fear and panic. I will try to avoid spoilers here- go see it for yourself. But consider this a review of how the film portrays linguistics, linguists, and foreign language learning. I'll cover pros and cons:

PROS:
  • The complexity of language is presented with major importance to the plot. For example, Amy Adams' character has to explain how linguistically complicated the interrogative "What is your purpose on Earth?" to an Air Force general who sees it as one simple question composed of 6 words.
  • Linguistics is presented as science, and fights for equal standing along hard sciences. Jeremy Renner's character is a NSF scientist (chemist? physicist?) who is initially a bit dismissive of linguistics, making a distinction between language and science. But he is won over, and ends up being Adams' supporter. 
  • Interaction. Adams needs to interact directly with the aliens in order for there to be any way for her to learn their language/teach them ours. Interaction is key in language learning! 
  • Language teaching and learning is presented pretty positively. We get to see Adams' character providing comprehensible input to the aliens, using gestures and actions to illustrate concepts. She has to start with extremely simple messages, and gradually works up from there. Communication is important to the whole process.
  • Written language. The alien writing system is key for humans learning the language, and I think this is a nice parallel to the real world, where written language can provide a huge boon to foreign language learning, especially for adults. Some would argue that for adults in non-immersion contexts, it's really the ease of accessing a particular writing system that determines the difficulty of learning another language. The classic example is Mandarin being especially difficult for Anglophones, even though Mandarin is really no more or less complex than French (of course, cognate vocabulary also plays a role).
CONS:
  • Louise Banks (the linguist played by Amy Adams) speaks a lot of languages, and can interpret to English in real-time. While it's not a bad thing at all to have Anglophone movie characters demonstrate multilingual abilities, it nonetheless reinforces the popular conception of a linguist as someone who knows many languages.
  • Just about the only linguistic theory mentioned by name is Sapir-Whorf. This is actually somewhat of a key plot point, so I can forgive it on that account, but in the real world the idea that the language you speak shapes how you think and experience the world has been largely debunked. There are only very slight differences in processing information across languages, and these amount to arguably negligible differences when it comes to forming a worldview.
All in all, this is the movie you tell friends to watch if you want them to get a basic sense of what linguistics is- it's not perfect, but I think it's better than linguists-as-accent-coaches in My Fair Lady. It's also a well-crafted, entertaining movie otherwise. I think I'm going to have to check out director Denis Villeneuve's other work!

Comments