Arrival: A Linguist’s Dream Movie

[Warning: May contain some spoilers!]

Last night, I watched Arrivala sci-fi thriller starring Amy Adams. For those of you who don’t know, this movie is about Dr. Louise Banks (played by Adams), who is a notable linguist and has been asked by the American military to translate alien communications.


One of my favourite scenes in the movie is when Dr. Banks explains why languages are so difficult. Linguists often get a bad reputation for not being true scientists, and that language is not a “real science”. People don’t understand the complications of learning a language or learning how another culture (or perhaps life form…) communicates.  Why can’t we just jump in and ask them the big questions?

Dr. Banks writes out the paramount question, “What is your purpose on Earth?” She so eloquently explains that she would need to teach the aliens what a question mark is, what it means to be on a quest for an answer, question formation, possessive pronouns, and what ‘purpose’ even means, just to name a few. We have to start with the small pieces, and gradually increase our knowledge.

I find languages fascinating, and if you do too, you will enjoy this movie for that reason alone. The linear language the aliens use to communicate portray an entire thought, story or expression with only one symbol – this suggests their way of communication is much more advanced than ours. Their symbols may remind some of a logographic system. Cultures that use Chinese symbols or even Egyptian hieroglyphs are examples of logography.


One of the many lessons this movie teaches is that of acceptance. Dr. Banks tries to understand the alien’s way of communication, not define or dictate it. Although she didn’t have very much time, I’m sure she would have examined their cognition, social structure, physical environment and other aspects that would allow her to appreciate how they communicate. Even when there was some miscommunication, and the aliens said, “offer weapon”, Dr. Banks didn’t rush to the same conclusions everyone else did. She realized that language is complex and two things can mean one – “weapon” could easily represent something much more innocent to the aliens.

Words wage war, and taking words at face value will cause problems. If we’re speaking to someone who speaks another language or we’re just learning their language, taking words at face value can cause hurt feelings. Instead of rushing to conclusions, it’s best to examine the surrounding circumstances behind the words.


We should accept other forms or style of communication – just because something is different, doesn’t mean it’s bad. We can discover the beauty of other languages, cultures or forms of communication if we take the time to understand.

This is just my take on this movie, but I recommend all language learners and language lovers to see Arrival. Thanks for reading!



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