Movie Review: Arrival

I took a trip to my local picture house recently to view one of the talkies. I’ve not reviewed a movie before but as this one touches on linguistics I felt like it wouldn’t be too out of place on this blog. 

There will be **spoilers** below. 

You have been warned. 

Arrival is a sci-fi flick in which Aliens come to Earth and humans try to communicate with them. The hero is a linguist. Predictably this has linguists very excited. Ben Zimmer, for instance has written that the film “does a remarkably good job of depicting how a linguist goes about her work” and Rob Drummond made a similar point on ‘Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review’. David Adger noted thatThe linguistics was very good“. 

I can understand the excitement at having a linguistics prof as a hero and I have to agree that it was a well made film. However, the contrarian in me wasn’t able to look past some of the linguistics and just enjoy the film. In fact, the whole central premise of the plot falls to pieces because it just isn’t backed up by what we know about languages.  Yes, I’m being a kill joy. Yes it’s just a movie. But here’s a list of the three things that bothered me in the film. The first two peeves are relatively minor, the last one was a clanger. 

The parts that rankled were the following (apologies if I’ve mis-remembered any parts). 

*peeve 1: linguist means linguist means linguist. 
Our hero was introduced as a linguist. If you’re not sure, in academia that means ‘someone who studies languages’. It doesn’t mean ‘someone who speaks a lot of languages’. Those people are usually called polyglots. Our hero is a linguist and a polyglot, speaking Mandarin, Farsi, Sanskrit and is shown giving a lecture on “romance languages”. 

OK, sure, some linguists do speak a lot of languages to varying degrees. But the film starts with the military thanking her for a Farsi translation. Translation is a hard job and linguistics is hard job and there isn’t that much overlap between them. Though, maybe she’s just insanely talented and that’s how she pays for her ridiculously expensive house? To her credit the linguist who assisted on the film fought this:

Coon unsuccessfully lobbied the filmmakers to change a line describing Louise, arguing that it misrepresents what linguists do: “You’re at the top of everyone’s list,” Forest Whitaker’s Army colonel says to Louise, “when it comes to translations.”

So well done and bad luck to Jessica Coon. By the by, The Guardian, rather densely asks why Chomsky wasn’t a consultant on the film:

Why, you ask, did they not approach Noam Chomsky, with his understanding of “deep structure” in language? Perhaps Prof Chomsky did not care to help America’s military-intelligence complex

Putting aside the fact that Chomsky’s work has, in fact been funded by “America’s military-intelligence complex” and that he famously dislikes the kind of field work linguistics that the hero of the film is involved in, it is not clear to me how knowledge of ‘deep structure‘ would have helped a linguistic dealing with a language they had no knowledge of. 

*peeve 2: The white board scene 
Our linguist hero is trying to convince the army that her method is the right way to go about things. She writes on a white board:

What is your purpose on Earth? 

She attempts to explain that in order to ask the aliens questions, she first needs to make sure they know what a question is. She goes on to make other points concerning things like vocabulary. This is all fine and quite sensible but there are a few clangers here. first she says (paraphrase) ‘we need to make sure they understand the difference between you singular and (crosses out the ‘r’ in ‘your’) you plural.’ In English there is no difference between singular and plural you (I -we, s/he -them, you you). 

She then says ‘we need to make sure they understand ‘why questions‘. Now I’ve heard of ‘wh’ questions, but ‘why questions’…? The sentence on the white board seemed to be lacking an essential item in what could be defined as a ‘why question’…that is, a ‘why’. Perhaps the script originally had the question as ‘why are you here?’ who knows. 

Next, (and this is really nit picky), if we’re talking to aliens, do we really need the words ‘on Earth’? I mean, are these aliens going to get confused by ‘what is your purpose’ and think we might be asking what their plans for Sunday afternoon are? 

*peeve 3: Eskimo’s and their many many words for snow. 
All of the other issues I could have happily put aside. However, when the words Sapir-Whorf were mentioned I tensed up. It’s hard to imagine something annoying me more than learning styles…but here it is. With this in mind, why have I never written about it before? It’s such an attractive and widely believed idea, that I really felt I needed quite a powerful response to it…and I’m really quite lazy. Linguist John McWhorter wrote an excellent book on the topic called ‘the Language Hoax’ and even he was reluctant to criticise the movie: 

If you’re not familiar with Sapir-Whorf I’ll present a very reductionist overview here. Basically it can be divided into two version. The first (which is the most attractive to click bait headlines) postulates that the language we speak allows us to think certain thoughts. It’s also known as linguistic determinism. The second is the idea that the language we speak influences the way we think. This is known as linguistic relativism

There’s a lot to say about this, but the TL:DR is that the strong form while being very attractive is patently false, whereas the weak form has some empirical support. The idea that the language you speak makes certain thoughts unthinkable (the strong version) is so seductive, it’s very hard to resist.  

Language can obviously influence though (like if I ask you to think about elephants and you do then my language influenced your thought) but it would be a brave soul who argued that the lack of a word for ‘he’ and ‘she’ in spoken Chinese means that Chinese people have no concept of whether they are talking about a man or a woman. One would have to wonder how we ever come up with concepts and then name them were this theory true. 

The most commonly known manifestation of this theory is the ever expanding number of words Eskimos are alleged to have for ‘snow‘. It started off as about 7 words in 1911 and reached 100 by 1984. All of this leading Geoff Pullum to pen his classic ‘The Great Eskimo vocabulary hoax‘. This even led to the creation of the term ‘snowclone‘ which describes “some-assembly-required adaptable cliché frames for lazy journalists” such as “If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have Y words for Z.“. 

The Eskimo Snow theory is attractive because it posits that Eskimos are surrounded by so much snow that their language represents their increased sensitivity to it, while us dumb Westerners just see all the subtle variety and diversity as plain old ‘snow’. It’s an attractive theory and the original Sapir-Whorf hypothesis had good intentions. Back in the days when Latin was considered the pinnacle of language, Sapir introduced the idea that rather than other languages being ‘primitive’ these languages offered insights into the world we would never be able to even perceive:

“Human beings… are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society… The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group.”(Sapir

 It was social justice of its day, but sadly it was not true. 

The film arrival takes the strong form of the theory to its logical conclusion. Learning the language of the heptopods, literally changes the protagonists outlook to an incredible degree. The Alien language is represented in circles and we are told the aliens have no concept of ordinal numbers. This, we later learn is because the aliens do not share our concept of time. In fact, the heptopods experience all time at once. Thus their sentence appear in circles. Once the protagonist learns their language she starts to be able to see into the future. The language she learns literally changes her perception of the world. 

How would circular sentences lead to a timeless world view? It’s hard to say anything about an alien language but as it is translatable, in the film into English sentences like ‘we bring a tool’ there are certain things we can say. Firstly, word order is essential in English. ‘We bring a tool’ is a lot different from ‘a tool brings us’ or ‘Bring us a tool’. If there was no case marking in the alien language (for instance ‘I’ is the subject in English but the same word is ‘me’ when it’s the object.) the there would have to be a lot of guessing as to the meaning of the sentences. If there were markers of case, then the circular nature of the sentence is really just an artistic flourish. 

Lastly, at what point would someone learning a new language obtain the ability to see into the future? After the first lesson? after a few months? Would it happen all at once, or gradually? People don’t tend to hit a point at which on Tuesday they were OK at French but on Wednesday they were fluent. So when does the new world view kick in? 

To its credit the film handles this point quite well. As Amy Adams eventually learns a language which makes the concept of ‘time’ disappear, so it follows she must have always possessed the ability to speak the language. The her in the past who couldn’t speak the language exists in the same time as the her who can speak the language. But presumably they also exist simultaneously with the her who couldn’t. Best not to think too much about this. 

In short the language can’t do what the film proposes it does and even if it could it wouldn’t lead to mind altering powers. But really….who cares? It’s a good film go and watch it! 

Thought terminating cliches

A: I think gay people should have the same rights to marry as straight people!

B: You say that but I’m a Christian and as such I believe that God created humans beings with the intention of them procreating. A good example of His wishes can be seen in the fact that the first two people he created, according to The Bible were a man and a woman. 


  Compare that with this:

A: I think gay people should have the same rights to marry as straight people!

B:  God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve

What’s great about this phrase (and there isn’t much) is that it neatly encapsulates a whole position in a short pithy phrase. It conveys a lot of information in a small space and solidifies thinking on a position. It can also be a good conversation stopper, -unless you have an equally neat retort. These phrase are an excellent way to avoid cognitive dissonance a good example would be the religious person who thanks god for surviving a serious disease, but when questioned why God allowed them to get the disease in the first place will say “God works in mysterious ways”. Job done. end of.

And don’t think I’m singling out the religious, everyone does this. For example, I’ve talked before about the nonsensical phrase “the exception that proves the rule“. It neatly ends a conversation (despite not making any sense). Other examples are the phrases “it’s political correctness gone mad!”, “I’m entitled to my opinion” and “Gun’s don’t kill people, people kill people!”. Recently I’ve discovered that these phrases are called ‘thought terminating cliches a phrase invented by Robert Jay Lifton who wrote:
The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis…for instance, the phrase “bourgeois mentality” is used to encompass and critically dismiss ordinarily troublesome concerns like the quest for individual expression, the exploration of alternative ideas, and the search for perspective and balance in political judgments.

Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China,

I’m glad I know the name because I’ve seen a lot of these phrases used when I talk to teachers about evidence in education. For example when I suggest that research might be useful I often hear “teaching is an art, not a science“. I’m not going to tackle this one in particularly because Daniel Willingham has already done so in this video.
One that I do want to look at is the idea that ‘context is king’ (also know as ‘think of the variables!’) in teaching. This is something I hear regularly expressed in sentiments like those expressed by Simon Andrewes in a recent comment on this blog. He mentions Kumaravadivelu and his idea of the “unique classroom” and notes that this means it is “practically impossible for teaching theory to apply to all cases.” He’s not the only one. I’ve heard many teachers claim that the most important thing is context and so research is a waste of time because the number of possible variables a context can bring will render any research invalid. It can’t be generalised to other classrooms because there are too many factors which relate to one classroom and one group of students in particular.  For this post, I will call this position ‘the argument from relativism‘.
Relativism is a very fashionable position in all kinds of fields, not just teaching. You’ll hear people tell you that ‘truth is relative’ and your truth is different from my truth, that there’s not objective truth and ‘everything’s relative.’ We also have moral relativism, which is equated by many with progressive thought, so different cultural practices are not objectively ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than things we do in the west, they are just ‘different’ but equally valid.
All of this generally comes from a good place and can be seen as a reaction to things like colonialism and racism where everything was seen through a lense of hierarchy with (usually) rich white straight Christian men at the top. The problem is, for all its good intentions, relativism is just plain wrong. As Nagel notes:

Many forms of relativism and subjectivism collapse into either self-contradiction or vacuity — self-contradiction because they end up claiming that nothing is the case, or vacuity because they boil down to the assertion that anything we say or believe is something we say or believe. (the last word 1997:6)

That is, the statement that “everything is relative” must include itself. So either the statement itself is relative (and is therefore meaningless) or is an ‘objective’ fact, true about ‘everything’ in which case in contradicts itself. Nagel goes on to note the danger that relativism brings:
The worst of it is that subjectivism is not just an inconsequential intellectual flourish or badge of theoretical chic. It is used to deflect argument, or to belittle the pretensions of the arguments of others. Claims that something is without relativistic qualifications true or false, right or wrong, good or bad, risk being derided as expressions of a parochial perspective or form of life – not as a preliminary to showing that they are mistaken whereas something else is right, but as a way of showing that nothing is right and that instead we are all expressing our personal or cultural points of view. The actual result has been a growth in the already extreme intellectual laziness of contemporary culture and the collapse of serious argument throughout the lower reaches of the humanities and social sciences, together with a refusal to take seriously, as anything other than first-person avowals, the objective arguments of others.(1997:5)
What I think Nagel gets at here, is the “thought terminating” nature of this phrase and the detrimental effect this has on arguments. Under the tyranny of relativism it becomes impossible to say that belief systems espousing hatred for gay people or promoting child brides are objectively ‘wrong’, that’s just your Western version of reality -don’t try to force it on other people.

Relativism has the same chilling effect on discussions of language teaching. Whenever the topic of research comes up, hands are quickly thrown into the air and the words “context” and “variables” appear and that’s that; everyone nods and the conversation moves on. Context absolutely must play a part in a teacher’s decision making process -but it’s not the only part. There is also truth. There are things we can learn which can apply to many, if not most contexts. despite the protestations of relativists all of our students have the same hardware in their heads -they all have brains and they all learn in exactly the same way.

The last sentence may have caused consternation about some teachers aware of another ‘thought terminating cliché’ namely that ‘every student learns in different ways’ but this is not quite the case. While all students like to study in different ways learning happens in the brain, in exactly the same way for everyone. A good analogy for this is Nuthall‘s statement that “We all have different food preferences…[but this] does not mean that the metabolic processes by which we digest and use food are different” (Nuthall, 2007:34) Since learners all possess a human brain, why would we not think there were some things we could generalise from one classroom to the next?
There is also another problem with the argument from relativism, which is to what extent do we apply it? Now sure, Japanese school kids may have slightly different needs from Spanish school kids but not all Japanese school kids need the same thing. A busy Tokyo high school may have different needs from a small rural high school. And when you really think about it, wouldn’t the male students, in both cases, have different needs to the female students? And all students have different levels of English and different aptitudes.  When you get right down to it, isn’t each individual student their own ‘unique classroom’ with its own needs, -and those needs may change from day to day, or hour to hour?

If this sounds ridiculous then remember that this is, in a sense, what humanistic ‘learner centred’ approaches already promote. Not only should you know each student’s individual level but also whether they are visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners, whether they are ‘power planners, expert investigators, radical reformers or flexible friends’ (Rosenberg 2012) Whether they are left brained or right brained thinkers, and which is their dominant intelligence. You might also consider what their preferred representational system is and just how emotionally intelligent they are. This presents (not including first language, age, sex, level and aptitude) around around 1080 (3x4x2x9x5) different possible combinations. 

This doesn’t seem to faze teachers though who manage somehow, to produce material for the ‘whole class’. And if learning can be generalised from the individual to the class with all the differences it purportedly contains, why can’t it be generalised to other classes, in other contexts?
Despite protestations, research is possible and will help to improve teaching. And why would teachers object to their job becoming more professional, with a more reliable skill set and deeper professional knowledge? The awful alternative is the idea that nothing is ever really knowable in teaching and knowledge only lasts as long as the class is together and is then gone. This is the logical conclusion of relativism, where best practice is only ever something that can exist for one class, or one student at one point in time. If this is the case, scrap journals, scrap teaching qualifications, scrap blogs and scrap conferences, because none of them matter.