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‘Arrival’: What’s Worse Than Not Speaking The Same Language?

Scene from the movie ‘Arrival’

Tears kept rolling down my cheek when I walked away from the cinema. My friend automatically assumed that I was sad to see someone who knew the future, but could do nothing about it. They were wrong. I was sad because I learned why the world is falling apart.

If you recall what happened in the past few months: UK is separating from EU. US is separating from the rest of the world. And the list goes on. How come? We live in a world where every 14 days a language dies and 5 million babies are born, which means more and more people come to speak the same language every day. Our tower of babel is dismantling. Shouldn’t humanity be reunited? Sadly no. Our perception of the world has evolved into numerous versions throughout the years. While communications are taken through languages, connections are built on worldviews. Without it as foundation, you may not be able to understand each other even if you speak the same language.

That’s why in ‘Arrival’, people like Gary Donnelly could learn how to deliver or receive messages using the graphic machine, but only Louise Banks was able to conduct true interaction with the Heptapods. She saw through that underneath the skin of language, there lies the way we think, what we value, and how we perceive. The movie made some adaptions from the book to indicate all three aspects.


The Way We Think — Attitudes towards the Unknown

Heptapods sent 12 ships to the earth: Japan, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Venezuela, Siberia, Shanghai, Indian Ocean, United Kingdom, Pakistan, Russia, Greenland, and Montana. These regions were diversified in their language systems and reactions when faced with the unknown visitor. Some were purely terrified and immediately consider it as threats, some were intrigued and hope to ‘steal’ advanced technology from it. The formation, grammar and logic behind languages have secretly shaped how we deconstruct a situation. Therefore it is not surprised while Heptapods came to human-being with one purpose, different sites would interpret it as ‘offer weapon’ or ‘use weapon’. Hence the messages were scattered and required collective effort to decode.

What We Value — Zero or Non Zero Sum Game

General Shang and his attempt to communicate with Heptapods through mahjong is a clever addition by the director in my view. Unlike poker cards which are numbered in the globally applied Arabic numerals, mahjong tiles are numbered in Chinese and cultural patterns, which can only be pronounced in Chinese. Besides, as Louise Banks indicated in the movie, mahjong is a zero sum game. By introducing this as the foundation of communication set tone that human beings and aliens held opposite stance and automatically ruled out the possibility of collaboration.

How We Perceive — The Sequence of Time

Perception of time, is the ultimate difference between Heptapods and us, the beautiful essence of the whole story. It influenced the formation of Heptapods’ written language system, guided how they view the universe, and led them to intertwine their path with ours. The mysterious and irregular circles conveyed more than a message, but also an ideology. I believe if the language truly exists, it would be beyond 2-dimensional. It will transcend the 4th dimension, time, into the past and the future.


As said, I was not sad about Louise Banks for not being able to change the future when she knew exactly how it would end. We all know how our life would end, but we accept it with no problem. The fact that we are on the same page with others brings inner peace to us. Not Louise Banks. She is alone on this planet with her unique worldview. We seek individuality, but also naturally look for connectivity. The grief is unimaginable, when the world is no longer united, and each person is left to bear with her self. I hope that day never come. I hope no matter what language we speak, whether we agree or not, we can have patience to understand each other’s evolving view of the world.

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