Language lessons from Arrival

One of my favourite classes in university was a linguistics course I took in first year. I found it incredibly fascinating to dive into language, how it’s structured and how you can dissect it.

I recently watched Arrival and was taken back to that university lecture hall and the way I learned to explore communications.

For those that haven’t seen it, Arrival is about aliens arriving on earth. They arrive relatively quietly in that unlike many alien movies, they do not attack. However, they do talk. Amy Adams plays a linguist who is drafted to decipher their language.

Her job is to find the answer to the question “What is your purpose on Earth?”

But of course, when you don’t speak the same language, there’s a bit of work involved in getting to that question.

At one point, Forest Whitaker, who plays the army colonel who recruited Adams, asks her why she’s spending so much time on basic words, rather than just going ahead and asking the big question.

She breaks down the big question:

To get there, we have to make sure they understand what a question is, and the nature of a request for information along with the response. There there is clarifying the difference between a specific “you” from a collective “you.” We don’t want to know why Joe Alien is here. We want to know why all of them landed.

Purpose requires an understanding of intent. Which means we have to find out if they make conscious choices or if their motivation is so instinctive they don’t understand a “why” question, and biggest of all, we need to have enough of a vocabulary with them so we understand their answer.

Communications is hard.Β To use another quote from the movie, “language is messy.”

We think it’s easy, because we all read and write and speak and listen. But a lot actually goes into communicating clearly, understanding each other and getting people–we’re not even thinking about Heptapods here–to respond in the way we want.

This challenge is part of what I love about communications.


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