What 'Arrival' Gets Right — And Wrong — About Linguistics : Short Wave The 2016 movie 'Arrival,' an adaptation of Ted Chiang's novella 'Story of Your Life,' captured the imaginations of science fiction fans worldwide. Field linguist Jessica Coon, who consulted on the film, breaks down what the movie gets right — and wrong — about linguistics.

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Science Movie Club: 'Arrival'

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You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

Jessica Coon was a teenager when she first learned that linguistics is a thing. She stumbled upon "Story Of Your Life," a science fiction novella by Ted Chiang. It's all about a linguist trying to figure out how to communicate with, well, aliens.

JESSICA COON: I think it was actually probably the first time I heard about the field of linguistics? And yeah, then I started college the next year. I saw an introduction to linguistics course and signed up for it.

SOFIA: These days, Jessica is a field linguist at McGill University.

COON: In particular, I work on syntax.

SOFIA: Basically, the way words combine to make sentences - and a few years ago, she got an email to be a consultant on a movie, a movie that was, coincidentally, based on the exact novella she read as a teenager.

I'm not trying to draw any connections that aren't there, but you read about linguistics for the first time in a book that became a movie that you became the person they consulted with.

COON: It's amazing, right? (Laughter).

SOFIA: It's pretty wild.

COON: I mean, when I first got the email that asked me to work on this film, I was really ready to push spam because it sounded very strange. And then at some point, I saw "The Story Of Your Life," and I said, wait a minute, I haven't thought about that in years. And then I responded.

SOFIA: That film, 2016 sci-fi hit "Arrival." So real quick, in case you haven't seen it, here's the gist.


AMY ADAMS: (As Louise Banks) This is the day they arrived.

COON: All of a sudden, 12 spaceships land all over Earth.


ADAMS: (As Louise Banks) ...Having trouble saying aliens?

COON: And we don't know why. They're not doing anything.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Eight hours after landing, there's still no signs of first contact. The objects measure at least...

COON: They're just sitting there. And so governments around the world are panicking, trying to figure out why are these alien spaceships sitting here. And different teams are going in to try to understand why they're here, what they want. And we are following one of these spaceships that I think is somewhere in Wyoming. And they bring in Amy Adams, who is a linguist.


ADAMS: (As Louise Banks) Now, that's a proper introduction.

COON: And her job is to decipher the alien language and figure out what they want.


ADAMS: (As Louise Banks) Human. I'm human. What are you?

SOFIA: So today on the show, another installment of the SHORT WAVE science movie club - what the movie "Arrival" got wrong about linguistics, what it got right and whether or not field linguist Jessica Coon has actually communicated with aliens. Honestly, it's a toss-up. I'm Maddie Sofia. You're listening to SHORT WAVE, NPR's daily science podcast.

So, Jessica, you were the linguist who consulted on the movie "Arrival." So give me a big-picture sense of what that means. Like, what did they actually have you do?

COON: Yeah. So the first thing I did was I got to read drafts of the screenplay, which was really fun because it's a very common thing to do in academia. We read things, and we give feedback on them but usually not at this fun of a scale.

SOFIA: The best committee meeting ever.

COON: Exactly. Yeah. It was very fun. So I got to read the screenplay, and they especially wanted feedback on how linguistics and linguists were represented in the film. So there were lots of places where I gave feedback and, you know, they incorporated it into the film. There were other places where they would say, OK, Jessica, yes, yes, like, thanks for your help, but really, in the end, linguists are not Hollywood's primary audience, and we're not going to get everything right here, and now you linguists just get to join, like, all of the other fields of people who get really annoyed when their science is misrepresented on screen.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

COON: So welcome to the club. Sorry. We're not going to change that (laughter).

SOFIA: The moviemakers also put Jessica through some exercises - basically, giving her a whiteboard and asking her, what would you do if aliens showed up? And those exercises actually informed one of the most famous scenes in the movie, when the main character, Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, schools the guy in charge of the mission about the fundamentals of linguistics. He asks her for a list of vocab words - essentially, the key words she was planning on teaching the aliens that day.


FOREST WHITAKER: (As Colonel Weber) You have a vocabulary list for me?

ADAMS: (As Louise Banks) I do.

WHITAKER: (As Colonel Weber) These are all grade school words - eat, walk. Help me understand.

SOFIA: So Amy Adams walks over to the whiteboard and scribbles, what is your purpose on Earth?


ADAMS: (As Louise Banks) OK. This is where you want to get to, right?

WHITAKER: (As Colonel Weber) That is the question.

ADAMS: (As Louise Banks) OK. So first, we need to make sure that they understand what a question is - OK? - the nature of a request for information along with a response. Then we need to clarify the difference between a specific you and a collective you because we don't want to know why Joe Alien is here. We want to know why they all landed. And purpose requires an understanding of intent. We need to find out, do they make conscious choices, or is their motivation so instinctive that they don't understand a why question at all? And, biggest of all, we need to have enough vocabulary with them that we understand their answer.

WHITAKER: (As Colonel Weber) I get it. Stick to your list.

COON: I love that scene. Yes. That is one of the great triumphs of linguistics in the film.

SOFIA: Yeah. I mean, this was one of the most interesting parts of the movie for me because I'm - you know, this idea of building a base for understanding of a new language is, like, really interesting and, like, the first steps in trying to communicate, which is, you know, like, your thing, right? So...

COON: Yeah.

SOFIA: But it's something that I think we just don't think about, and to see it kind of in practice was so fascinating. And I'm glad to hear it was, like, pretty well done, in your eyes, question mark?

COON: Yeah. I think it was really well done. I mean, I think one thing that is really neat about this movie and what makes it such, you know, interesting and intellectual sci-fi is they're not just typical humanoid creatures. We don't already have some kind of magical universal translator in place, and so we have to figure out, how do they even communicate, and will we be able to communicate with them?

Given how advanced they are, that they've made these spaceships and have arrived on Earth, I think it's safe to assume that they have some advanced form of communication and that that form of communication should have patterns in it that we could eventually decipher. But thinking about, you know, is it audible, or is it written, or could creatures communicate with smells, or - you know, like, we just have no idea what could be out there. If it's audible, is it in a sound frequency that human ears can pick up?

SOFIA: Yeah. For sure. OK. All right, Jessica, so I'm sure "Arrival" doesn't get everything right in its portrayal of linguists. Are there particularly, like, cringeworthy moments for you, Jessica?

COON: There are a few of them. So actually, one of the scenes that I think is in the trailer for the movie is when Forest Whitaker's character, Colonel Weber, shows up at Amy Adams's office.


WHITAKER: (As Colonel Weber) I'm Colonel G.T. Weber.

COON: The reason he's there is because she is on the top of everybody's list of translators.


WHITAKER: (As Colonel Weber) You are on the top of everyone's list when it comes to translations.

COON: And linguists, you know - linguistics, as I mentioned, is the scientific study of human language. Linguists are really not translators. This is a separate skill set. I could not translate anything for anybody. Many linguists do speak multiple languages, so, you know, sometimes, this is how people get interested in linguistics. But it's not a prerequisite for being a linguist. So if there are listeners out there thinking, oh, that sounds so cool, but I'm bad at learning languages. I could never be a linguist - rest assured, you definitely can. There are lots of excellent linguists who claim to be terrible at learning languages.

SOFIA: OK. So, Jessica, at the end of the movie, it is revealed to us that the aliens have come to Earth to kind of give us the gift of their language - when, you know, used correctly, can help you see through time, like, see your future, essentially. So my first question is, as a professional field linguist, Jessica, can you see through time?


COON: Yes. Definitely (laughter).

SOFIA: OK. Good. Good. I wanted to establish that. But no, really - I mean, one of the cool things about the movie is that they explore this idea that the language that you use changes the way that you perceive the world, and this is actually an idea that's, you know, that's at least been debated in linguistics. And so talk to me a little bit about that idea.

COON: Sure. Yeah. So this idea is called linguistic relativity or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and it's the idea that the language you speak constrains or determines your thoughts or how you see the world. And when it comes to sort of larger world vision, you know, this has been pretty clearly shown to not be correct. So, you know, humans have basically the same cognitive abilities regardless of the language they speak, and it's even - you know, a worry with this is if taken too far, it can be a very easy way to exoticize other people who speak differently from us, right? You know, like, this culture speaks a different language, and so they're basically, you know, they don't have the same thought processes as we do. And that's not true.

SOFIA: Right.

COON: But, of course, we don't know anything about alien languages, so that's sort of the fun science fiction part of the movie is, you know, alien languages likely are very, very different from human languages.

SOFIA: Yeah, yeah.

COON: And, of course, then there's sort of the larger plot element of what she is seeing in the future. And really, I think it's a story about humanity and families and, you know, what kind of choices you would or wouldn't make if you saw that a crisis was coming but knew that there was happiness along the way. I think it's good (laughter). I really liked it.

SOFIA: (Laughter) The headline is, movie good - Jessica Coon.

COON: Well, I say this in part because, you know, some linguists have said, why did you let them have all that Sapir-Whorf stuff in there? We all know that's not right. But if you take that out, it's really - you know, it's not the same movie anymore.

SOFIA: Yeah. You know, and also, I'll say, they don't know - you know what I mean? - about alien language. You don't know. We - these are a different set of rules.

COON: We don't know. We don't know anything. Yeah. All bets are off.

SOFIA: So, you know, very important question, Jessica, scientifically is, did you meet Amy Adams for this?

COON: I did get to have lunch with Amy Adams - probably the most glamorous thing I'll ever get to do in my academic life - and she was awesome. She was very cool. She had excellent questions. She was super-smart, super-interesting to talk to. We had a really good conversation.

SOFIA: Oh. Awesome.

COON: And I think, you know, one thing that's really special about this movie that she pointed out is that, you know, this is a science fiction film with a female lead, right? She's not just the love interest. If anything, the man, Jeremy Renner, he's the love interest. Like, she is the lead, and she is a scientist. And apparently, it's unusual in films to first cast the woman. Usually, the man is cast first, and then they pick the woman sort of based on chemistry of the man they've already selected. And this is not how this movie works. So I think, you know, it's wonderful for the field of linguistics for us to get this kind of publicity, and now people know a little bit more about what linguists do. And it's also - I think it's really neat from the point of view of having women scientists represented on the big screen.

SOFIA: OK, Jessica Coon, this was so much fun. Thank you for your time.

COON: Thank you.

SOFIA: Thank you for your brain. I appreciate it. I really...

COON: Sure. My pleasure. Thanks for having me. This was fun.


SOFIA: Today's episode was produced and fact-checked by Brit Hanson and edited by Viet Le. I'm Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


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