The movie Arrival (2016)

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.

Louise’s office

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[1], 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?


I haven’t seen the movie, but I do browse linguistic forums, so I gathered here some comments from linguists about the movie’s potrayal of their discipline:

“As an actual linguist, I was somewhat afraid of how the movie would represent my field, and in some respects, my fears seem to have been justified. First, as it has already been pointed out, no clear difference is made between interpreters/translators/polyglots and actual linguists. Sure, a linguist speaking several (possibly endangered/rare) languages, and occassionally doing translation is not unheard of, but I would have been extremely happy if they had shown, or at least hinted at linguistics being a “hard” science, in the sense of using mathematical, statistical, and several other formal methods to conduct research.”

“The movie was great. You can’t expect them to use hard linguistics while pandering to the average movie goer. The nit picks I have don’t ruin the movie for me either.”

“They consulted with linguist Jessica Coon on the accuracy and they repeatedly dismissed the basic problems with simple fixes that she pointed out. They didn’t try very hard to be accurate.”

“Sapir whorf on steroids, as a fellow linguist friend described it to me. I was on a date when I saw it and literally groaned and went NO when they mentioned Sapir whorf, and my date was very embarrassed. I told him I’d explain later.”

“I would have loved a realistic language/translation based plot with real xenolinguistics, but it felt like a) the movie was written for general audiences and didn’t want to take the time to really teach anything, and b) the writers had only read through some Wikipedia pages about linguistics.”

“At first I was disappointed, but then took it as playing around with linguistic determinism. […] Playing around with scientific theories, even discredited ones, is valid sci fi. No different that imagining a world where the theory of spontaneous generation is real, for example.”

“I figured out how explain the disappointment of Sapir-Whorf to relatives at dinner today. It’s kind of as if a movie about someone coming to terms with terminal cancer, but was cured by being bloodletted with leeches. Like it’s just an outdated and disappointing plot point.”

“I didn’t like how they treated the linguistics science there. There’s even that part where the theoretical physicist (or mathematician, can’t remember), says to her that linguistics isn’t a science and that only “real science” should be credited - and the movie gave the impression that it supports this idea, like if linguistics was a form of art or something like that. Bad service.”

“In terms of the actual plot of the movie, it was profoundly silly. It also promulgated heavily the idea that linguists are basically glorified translators and polyglots.”

“To my mind, the more important thing here is the role linguistics plays in the movie. The general public won’t come away knowing anything substantive about linguistics, but may come away with a greater appreciation of its utility. And perhaps even a few individuals will be inspired to dig in and learn a bit more.”


Interesting comments indeed. Of course some will be disappointed about how shallow it was with respect to the scientific part, but again, a hollywood movie and they still cooperated with a team of professionals, not too bad there. As far as sapir whorf, I am no expert and as has been said before
“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.”

But who knows what’s out there. Physics couldn’t explain many things just a few decades ago. By learning an alien language, we probably won’t be able to see future but just because the scientific community thinks sth is or isn’t possible now doesn’t mean 100 years later it won’t turn out be totally different:)

As for lack of distinguishing among linguists/interpreters/translators/polyglots, I totally agree on that. But hey, even Steve’s book title is guilty of that:)

Interesting post.
Even though I haven’t seen the movie (I probably should though, the reviews are generally very good.)
I’ll say that some of the quotes that @Sodankyla posted of excerpts taken from different linguistic forums, seem a bit pedantic.

Really, it is a science fiction movie. You don’t need to believe that being bitten by a radioactive spider can give you superpowers is scientifically sound in order to enjoy the Spiderman movies or that the warp drive from Star Trek is realistic in order to enjoy the series. I also doubt that languages conferring future-reading abilities formed part of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Also, from what I read from an article by the Business insider, writing about the input by professional linguists in the movie: it mostly revolved around the actual construction of the language, such as using a mixture of unorthodox sounds in order to make up the phonology of the language or designing the alphabet (pictograms?) so as to make it unlike other human scripts.

On a side note, I see similar complaints from other scientists/experts whenever a popular movie or TV show butchers a concept in their own field. We do live in an imperfect world…

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I saw the movie the day it came out and I thought it was great. Sure there may have been some Hollywood drawbacks as you mention, but I don’t think that takes away from the core value/meaning of the film. It is very thought provoking, and you shouldn’t go into this movie expecting to see a “normal” Hollywood film, as this one tends to lean more towards the calm with a sense of urgency, longer panned out shots, and other moments which give you a chance to think, similar to a lot of French film.

As for the linguistics of the film, I can’t fully judge since my specialty isn’t purely anthropological linguistics, but rather French and Spanish, which I took linguistics classes for both.

I am a fan of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but how it is portrayed in the movie, I’m not really to make a reach that far.

The movie did kind of show a basic process of how linguists can break down languages, and it was quite fascinating if you haven’t already seen how they do it.

I’d give the movie a solid 9/10. I will be revisiting it and watching it again in the near future.