On Facebook I stumbled upon a quora post of ‘What do linguists think of the movie Arrival’ and it sparked my interest, since the MIT student of linguistics gave it quite a positive review. (+ an imbd rating of 8.0) the movie itself was made with the help of a team of linguists (from MIT as well).
There are some really interesting points:
"It’s fantastic. Arrival exposes people to the challenges and some theories in linguistics, which is very satisfying to me. And the production itself is just great. Certain core claims are not accurate, but it’s Hollywood and this is good enough. Here’s what I really like about the movie:
Language is harder than we think
Arrival did a great job of illustrating how difficult language actually is, thanks to a team of real linguists advising the production team.
Just look at the scene where Louise decomposes the simple question, “What is your purpose on Earth?”
Humans are able to understand this only because our brains are wired to understand it. Just to understand the word your, humans have to make assumptions whether your refers to just the person being talked to or the collective group.
We also have to understand the concept of possession (you vs your). And even more subtle than that, we understand the concept of person—that we are individuals and your and my purposes may be different. The last few points are not language specific; 2nd language learners can pick them up quickly because the concepts are natural to just all humans. But, who knows, aliens may be spawned parts of one being and the concept of linguistic person makes no sense to them.
Further, all humans understand what a question is, so it immediately makes sense to us that the sentence demands an answer. Aliens may never have to express questions because of however their communication systems are designed.
Innateness of language
We can take the above points further. By showing how difficult language is, and how much humans take it for granted, Arrival appeals to the idea that language is innate—that much of language and relevant concepts have already been programmed in our brain from birth, and we learn a few more parameters that make different languages different. This is very much the core of modern linguistics.
This is not related to language, but I was very satisfied with the setup of Louise’s office (the scene where the military officer first asks her to translate a recording). The book shelves look very realistic, with arrays of multi-volume book sets and some individual books mixed in. There’s picture of Noam Chomsky. There are Asian decoration items, which are consistent with Louise’s being able to speak Chinese.
At the end of the day, Arrival is still a Hollywood movie, and academic linguists are certainly not their main audience. There are some important points that I want to address:
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
Thanks to Rob Kerr for pointing out this theory and giving a quick summary in the comment!
Arrival’s plot hinges on a strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which claims that language determines our cognitive abilities. That is, what we are capable of thinking is determined by the language we know. In Arrival, Louise learns how to transcend time by learning the alien language, which seems to be free of time and order. We may be able to relate to this by observing how we think when we learn a second language. For example, if you learn Thai, you may learn how Thai people perceive the relationship with family members in a way you have never thought of before.
However, the vast majority of the linguistics community have rejected this claim. It is more true that how we think shapes and limits our language than vice versa. Human languages are much much more alike than different, as our cognitive systems are fundamentally similar. You don’t get a new superpower by learning a new language. In our second language learner example, learning a new language simply exposes you to a new culture and ways of thinking. It doesn’t mean you weren’t capable of such ways of thinking before. I could have shown you in English how Thai people view their lives.
There is also a weak version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which says that language influences our thinking. This is more accepted but still controversial. Personally, me speaking English and me speaking Thai sometimes think differently. But first of all the difference is shallow. And there are many other plausible explanations.
Linguists are not always polyglots
There is nothing wrong in making Louise fluent in English and Chinese and also happen to have easily translated Farsi and even the alien language in a few dozens of sessions. Some linguists are actually very good at picking up new languages. However, the majority of them aren’t. Linguists are good at recognizing patterns in languages and studying them scientifically. But being fluent in them is totally different. It’s like knowing physics doesn’t make you shoot basketball more accurately.
Arrival has a team of linguists working behind it. (Many of them MIT graduates!) If you are interested, you can listen to this interview with Jessica Coon, one of the linguists who worked on the film."
Interview with the linguistics professor working on the movie:
I have just finished watching it and despite some necessary hollywood drawbacks, I also think it was quite thought provoking.
Has anyone seen the movie as well?