Many stories have been told about the imagined first contact between planet Earth and an alien civilisation. This topic poses many intriguing questions: would we welcome visitors from outer space, or would we fear them? Would they help us or harm us? Among all those who tried to answer, Arrival stands out because it focuses on a different riddle altogether – not on what humans and aliens would say to each other, but how.
The aliens of Arrival, unlike many of their predecessors, do not magically start speaking English as soon as their spaceships touch down on Earth’s soil. The language barrier thus drives the plot and sets up a linguistics professor as the protagonist. And that is what sparked my interest: Arrival is a work of science fiction whose science is not physics or biology, but linguistics.
The story begins with professor Louise Banks reminiscing about key events of her life. One of the most momentous is the arrival of twelve alien spacecraft, anchored in several countries throughout the world. Soon after that historic day, Louise finds herself whisked away from her quiet academic work to help with the alien crisis. Her role is deceptively simple – to be the interpreter for a non-human language.
Louise eagerly accepts this challenge. Unlike most of her new colleagues, she stresses the importance of listening to the aliens and establishing a personal connection of sorts. Another researcher, physicist Ian Donnelly, gradually comes round to her point of view and becomes her chief ally. Their quest for understanding leads to startling discoveries about the way the aliens experience the world, which is reflected in their intricate writing system. (The spoken language of the aliens is deemed too difficult for humans.) The main focus is on day-to-day research work and the many small breakthroughs that eventually contribute to success.
At the same time, the presence of the aliens – nicknamed heptapods for their seven-legged form – causes a lot of tension across the globe. There is no clear evidence that the heptapods’ intentions are peaceful, which leads some countries to argue for a preemptive strike. The communication breakdowns that occur among us Earthlings reinforce the central theme of the importance of two-way communication.
This, in a nutshell, is the basic premise of Arrival. But what I was drawn to were the elements of the story which resonate with language learning and teaching in general. Call it a professional quirk. This article therefore passes by many other interesting points, but it also steers clear of major spoilers.
From the very beginning, the work of professor Banks takes on a form that will be instantly recognisable to language teachers everywhere. In her attempts to teach the aliens the basics of human language, she decides to enter the spaceship armed only with a whiteboard and a dry-erase marker. The first thing she shows them is the word “human”; the second, the names Louise and Ian. Add a bit of punctuation and we get the well-known phrase “I am [first name] and I am from [country].” And although I have nothing but respect for Arrival’s serious tone and high-minded aspirations, I cannot help but think that a few brightly coloured flashcards would not be out of place in those scenes. It is a matter of opinion whether aliens are easier or more difficult to work with than a room full of schoolchildren.
On the other hand, Louise is a student as well as a teacher. Arrival vividly portrays the fascination with which she and her research team begin to comprehend not only the heptapods’ writing, but also their thought process. “Do you dream in their language?” Ian asks at some point. Indeed she does, and this fact is used as shorthand for her total immersion into the heptapod way of thinking.
Louise’s approach, though effective, is not the only one. As the ship that landed in America is merely one of twelve, the research team keep in touch with their counterparts in other parts of the planet. There are tantalising hints that the others are trying out different methods. How many ways are there to try and talk to aliens? Where do cultural factors come in? These possibilities remain, for the most part, sadly unexplored. All we can do is fill in the details on our own – perhaps they could use use pictures, or music, or play a game – and wonder whether individual heptapods would show any preference in learning styles.
Regardless of the strategy they take, the scientists still make mistakes. Bias, fear and bad luck all result in a few misunderstandings. When this fact becomes obvious, the mistranslations are bound to elicit an understanding nod from all bilingual viewers – indeed from anyone who has ever watched a subtitled film and muttered “That’s not what they said!” accusingly pointing at the screen.
Arrival is exceptional in many ways: well-researched, thought-provoking, visually compelling. It is a meditation on subjectivity and empathy; a blockbuster which eschews flashy effects in favour of deep contemplation. But it also evokes the everyday experience of a language learner who struggles with foreign grammar or spelling, including the sudden flash of insight when the pieces of the puzzle come together and it all starts to make sense.