A lingustically-inclined cognitive scientist’s take on Arrival

Note: This post doesn’t just contain spoilers. The whole thing is pretty much a spoiler. Read it now only if you have seen the movie, don’t plan to see the movie, or don’t mind knowing the end of the movie. Read it later if none of those previous conditions apply to you. Either way, read it at some point. 

This weekend I saw Arrival. The movie finished around 9:30pm, which is about bedtime for me, but I was wired. A few times during the movie, I squeezed my husband’s hand. He passed over his sweatshirt for me to rest on my lap, assuming the squeezes were my way of telling him I was cold (they often are). I clarified, I’m just excited.

Why was I so excited? Because Arrival nailed some of the intellectual issues that make me tick.

Wikipedia has a solid overview of the plot, so mine will be brief. In the movie, aliens land in 12 different locations across the Earth. One of those locations is in the U.S., and Louise, a linguistics professor, is called to help make sense of their language so humans can communicate with the aliens (referred to as heptapods) and ask them why they’re here.

Lessons Learned

Early on, the colonel asks Louise why she has such a lengthy list of terms she needs to learn to communicate with the heptapods. The military only wants the answer to the question: “What is your purpose here?” Louise briefly points out the layers of complexities underlying such a seemingly simple question. First, it’s a question, so you have to make sure the heptapods know what a question is; that it’s a request for information. Then there’s the pronoun your, which is ambiguous in English in a way it’s not in other human languages. Your can refer to Joe alien or it can refer to the aliens collectively, an important specification that needs to be clear to effectively ask the heptapods why they’re here. Understanding the word purpose assumes an agreed-upon sense of intentionality. These are just a few of the reasons that Louise needs to be able to communicate human and Louise and many other seemingly-unrelated words before diving into the meaty why are you here? question. Lesson #1: Communication is not simple.


Eventually, Louise gets to the point where she can ask the heptapods why they’re on Earth. They write their response, which Louise translates as Offer weapon. Other teams of linguists at the other 11 locations with heptapod shells have also gotten to a similar point in their communication with the heptapods and translate the responses similarly: Use weapon. Not surprisingly, people freak out. China has declared that they’ll open fire on the shell if they don’t leave within 24 hours. Pakistan and Sudan follow suit. Nations start disconnecting from each other. Everyone is afraid that the heptapods are going to attack, and the U.S. military starts evacuating from the site.

Louise is not so ready to accept this message as a warning of attack. Maybe the weapon the heptapods were talking about what English speakers refer to as a tool (which is a really ambiguous term, accounting for so many different objects. Of course a screwdriver is a tool, a knife is a tool, a pen is a tool. But so are cars and iPhones and… language). Lesson #2: Translating is messy (this version of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air translated many times over hillariously reminds us of this fact).

Despite the military’s disapproval, Louise takes it upon herself to clarify the heptapods’ message. Why are they here? They are here to help humanity because in 3,000 years they will need humans’ help. Louise asks how they can possibly know that they’ll need our help in 3,000 years. They know because they have an ability to perceive time in a way we don’t: they can see the future. And, they point out to Louise, so can she. It is at this point that we realize that the visions Louise has been having throughout the movie, which we assumed to have been flashbacks to her daughter’s life and death from a rare form of cancer, are actually flash-forwards. As Louise has learned the heptapods’ language, she has acquired the ability to perceive time as they do.


The heptapods’ written language is not linear, as every known human language is. It’s written simultaneously from left to right and right to left. It’s cyclical. They have come to help humanity by offering up an incredibly valuable tool — their language. Once someone knows their language, they will be able to perceive time as the heptapods do, in a new way. And that is a gift. Lesson #3: Language is a gift. Lesson #3a: It can shape the way you see the world.

As I left the movie, I looked around at the other people in the theater and tried to imagine the conversations they’d have on the way home. I imagined someone commenting, Imagine if the language you spoke and the way you wrote actually affected the way you perceive time? That would be wild.

You know what would be even more wild? If people spent all day every day thinking about and working on that very topic. If they earned government and university funding, conducted academic research experiments, talked and wrote incessantly about it, and at the end of it, they were granted a PhD. So wild. That’s my life, so I guess I’m wild — there’s a first time for everything.

Language Shapes Thought about Time

As far as we know, there are no human speakers of any language who can see the future as a result of their language’s way of talking about time. But there are other cool connections between the way different groups of people talk about time and the way we think about it. Across many languages, we tend to use features of space to talk about time, and cognitive science research shows that we tend to invoke space when we think about time as well.

In English, for example, we often talk about looking forward to the future and putting the past behind us. Beyond just a way of talking, we’re faster to think about the future when doing so involves some kind of forward component (like moving our arms or bodies forward) and faster to think about the past when it involves backward movement. Speakers of the Aymara language actually reverse this convention: since they know what happened in the past, it’s in front of them, in visible space, while the future, unknown, is behind. Their spontaneous gestures reveal that they also think about the past as ahead and future as behind. And Mandarin Chinese speakers can talk about time using vertical space. The same words that mean above and below can be combined with temporal words like month to produce the phrases last month and next month. Compared to English speakers, who don’t talk about time using vertical metaphors, Mandarin speakers have more robust vertical mental timelines.

Linguistic metaphors matter for the way speakers of a language think about time, but so does their writing direction. As left-to-right readers and writers, English speakers think of time as left-to-right. Right-to-left readers and writers, like speakers of Hebrew and Arabic, think of time as flowing from right-to-left. And Mandarin speakers with more experience with top-to-bottom text think of time even more vertically than those who speak the same language but don’t read vertically (whether Mandarin is written vertically varies from one location to another). When you read and write, you are continually experiencing the flow of time in one direction. Your eyes and hand move in a consistent direction as time unfolds, which seems to instill a consistent mental timeline. (See the list of resources at the bottom of this post for more info on all of these studies and more)

Back to Arrival

The movie was a 5/5 in my book because it was captivating. It was a 5/5 because a linguist saved the day, and because the military recognized that they needed someone with a PhD in linguistics for this crucial job. And, to boot, the linguist was a female, which is not at all far-fetched in the real world, but is not to be taken for granted in a Hollywood portrayal of an academic. As a bonus, Arrival spread the concept of my research much farther than my dissertation will, and it proved — even to me — that there are so many reasons for us to continue methodically investigating the world’s languages and their impact on cognition. Because you just never know when the heptapods will arrive.


You can also find this post published on moviepilot.com.

More Information

Bergen, B., & Chan Lau, T. (2012). Writing direction affects how people map space onto time. Frontiers in Cultural Psychology, 3(109).

Boroditsky, L., Fuhrman, O., & McCormick, K. (2010). Do English and Mandarin speakers think about time differently? Cognition, 118(1), 123–129. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2010.09.010

Casasanto, D. (2008). Who’s afraid of the big bad Whorf? Crosslinguistic differences in temporal language and thought. Language Learning, 58(s1), 63–79.

Casasanto, D., & Jasmin, K. (2012). The hands of time: Temporal gestures in English speakers. Retrieved from http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/cog.2012.23.issue-4/cog-2012-0020/cog-2012-0020.xml

Fuhrman, O., & Boroditsky, L. (2010). Cross-Cultural Differences in Mental Representations of Time: Evidence From an Implicit Nonlinguistic Task. Cognitive Science, 34(8), 1430–1451. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1551-6709.2010.01105.x

Fuhrman, O., McCormick, K., Chen, E., Jiang, H., Shu, D., Mao, S., & Boroditsky, L. (2011). How Linguistic and Cultural Forces Shape Conceptions of Time: English and Mandarin Time in 3D. Cognitive Science, 35(7), 1305–1328. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1551-6709.2011.01193.x

Miles, L. K., Tan, L., Noble, G. D., Lumsden, J., & Macrae, C. N. (2011). Can a mind have two time lines? Exploring space–time mapping in Mandarin and English speakers. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18(3), 598–604. http://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-011-0068-y

Núñez, R. E., & Sweetser, E. (2006). With the future behind them: Convergent evidence from Aymara language and gesture in the crosslinguistic comparison of spatial construals of time. Cognitive Science, 30(3), 401–450.

Ouellet, M., Santiago, J., Israeli, Z., & Gabay, S. (2010). Is the future the right time? Experimental Psychology, 57(4), 307-314.




      1. Naturally I’m biased because I work for one, but if you’re interested moviepilot.com is a great place to share original thoughts on film and TV such as this.. if you’d like to know some more about how you can be seen on there, shoot me an email!

  1. I was thinking about the space – language relations from Lera’s seminar for most of the movie and during the post movie discussion with my roommate. It is really fascinating! And your other post on the use of “fight” reminds me of how the Chinese approached the communication with the aliens with a competitive Mahjong game.

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