I watched Arrival together with my 15 year old son, whose attention span is even worse than mine. We both were captivated by the wonderfully written story about humans trying to communicate with aliens who visited earth. Throughout the movie the humans try to figure out what the aliens’ intentions are by trying to establish some form of communication. If you want a more detailed description of the plot I can only recommend Wikipedia or even better, just watch the movie. The main focus of Arrival lies on linguist Louise Banks.
Show and Tell
Louise approaches her task to establish a form of communication first by trying to understand the spoken language of the Heptapods but soon realizes that that would take too long. So she decides to learn their language with help of written language and initially a show and tell approach. She finds out that the written language of the Heptapods is not a phonetical representation of their language. Linguist Betty Birner compares this with Chinese. You should read her interview after this article (link at the bottom).
Im Zweifel für den Angeklagten – Benefit of the Doubt
It takes a couple of months until Louise gains a basic understanding of the new language but at one point things turn around. This is when the Heptapods use the word “(offer us) weapon” as an answer to “Why are you here?”.
I don’t want to spoil the movie for you so I leave it at mentioning that Louise is warning the military, which is of course now even more alert, to come to quick conclusions as they are not yet certain whether both species have the same understanding of this word.
An approach I usually recommend when you are in a foreign culture and feel offended or notice that someone is offended by what you have just said is not to take things personal unless you are absolutely sure they are meant that way. And to also keep in mind that people who don’t know you well usually do not abuse you without reason. If they do, it’s also rather their problem, not yours. I wish I didn’t have to gain this insight the hard way.
Language is not as Deterministic as one Might Think
While the language hypothesis that underlies this movie, namely that language determines your view and perception of the world and even the perception of time, is not very scientific (after all Arrival is a Science Fiction movie – see also interview with Betty Birner below), after more than 10.000 hrs of teaching German to over a thousand human beings from all over the planet, I fully agree with at least one conclusion of the movie: that knowing a foreign language can be a gift. And it’s not only a gift for you.
A new Language is a Gift
It’s a gift in several ways. Above all when you start learning German, you will get to know the real you. The part of you that is hidden behind your mother tongue. Without any (or almost no) means to express yourself, what’s left is who you really are. For most of us this feels very uncomfortable for a long time.
The Secret of good Language Learners
With growing knowledge of German you will build up a extended identity of yourself step by step. It is almost like taking yourself apart and putting yourself together again. This sounds worse than it is. It can be very exciting if you accept this instead of fighting it.
And therein lies the secret of good language learners. They do not identify with what they can not express but with what they are able to communicate no matter how little it seems.
Knowing their Language Alone won’t make you Understand the Germans
In contrast to Arrival’s fictional deterministic assumption, knowing the German language alone won’t really give you any significant information about how Germans think and feel. For that you’d have to actually experience their culture and behaviour over a longer period of time and you’d have to analyse and compare it with your own culture and behaviour. And what a gift this is because it is like looking into a mirror of truth, in which we can see our true selves.
A good starting point to take a safe look at the German culture is the book “Doing Business with Germans” which presents several incidents that non-Germans had with Germans and tries to interpret these carefully.
Don’t worry about the “business” in the title. It will give you a solid range of possible interpretations for the behavior of Germans.
A good gift Always Makes two People Happy
When you are learning German it is also a gift for the ones that you are learning it for. Germans highly appreciate when someone makes an effort to speak their language. It will establish a whole different kind of contact between you and them which will also make you feel a lot better. After all, if you live in a German speaking country I assume you want to feel as much as home as possible. And the more you understand the world around you, the more at ease you will feel. The more at ease you feel, the easier your life might be.
Worauf wartest du noch? The best moment to learn German is now. We at smarterGerman are happy to accompany and support you on this exciting journey. Talk (German) soon.
PS: I recommend that you read this lovely interview with Betty Birner, professor of linguistics and cognitive science at Northern Illinois University