Learning a new language comes in different stages – one must tackle progressively more difficult grammar and vocabulary as well as the emotional element associated with language learning. Enthusiasm followed by confusion and shyness when actually using the language, perhaps frustration and anger if nothing seems to come out the right way – all hopefully followed by an ease, where speaking a desired language becomes second nature. The newly released movie, Arrival, demonstrates this evolution of language learning quite well…but with an Alien language; Heptapod.
Heptapod | The Realistic Way to Learn an Alien Language
Learning to Communicate with Heptapods
Rarely does so much hang in the balance as it does for Dr. Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) in the upcoming movie “Arrival”. With alien ships landing across the globe, a race to understand and communicate with the new lifeforms, “Heptapods”, begins. This is made even more serious as the political and economic landscapes are shifting radically, and human violence, both towards each other as well as the aliens, seems inevitable.
The sci-fi movie, based on the short story entitled Story Of Your Life by Ted Chiang, does not boast with action packed scenes full of explosions and fighting. Rather at the heart of the story lies the alien language, called Heptapod A or B depending on if you’re using the spoken or written form respectively, and how learning this new, quite literally alien, language changes how Dr. Louise Banks perceives the world.
Heptapod is a Language – So Do You Translate it or Interpret it?
To use the Heptapod language, particularly the written form known as Heptapod B, is to know the consequential (and seemingly inevitable) end result of your thought before you write or say anything. In simpler terms, in order to write a sentence in Heptapod B, one must know any and all future outcomes of a statement, and how they intertwine with the present in which the statement is being made – highlighting how the future and present are intrinsically intertwined.
How often with our human languages do we delete, change or insert words, sentences or entire paragraphs to fit our needs? With that in mind, how could anyone possibly learn a language where you have to know future consequential outcome out what you are trying to describe, before you describe it? Patiently is the answer in the case of Dr. Louise Banks. But how does one start to learn a completely foreign language in the first place?
To begin, you might wonder if it’s better to pursue some form of language translation from the new language to a native tongue, thereby learning it in a written format, or to take the interpreting services route and learn how to use the language orally. For anyone who has ever taken a language course, there is a strong concentration in both translating target language vocabulary and phrases to your native tongue (so that you know how to ask for important things like the bathroom), and orally practicing how to form sentences and have conversations.
When a language does not use a familiar alphabet, or sounds that are utter-able by any human, things become a bit more difficult. They become even more difficult when there appears to be no apparent connection between the methodology of the spoken and written languages. Such is the case Dr. Louise Banks finds herself in with the Heptapods. She must undergo many methods, both of the interpretation and translation services, in order to determine the best way to best use the alien language. Ultimately one turns out to be a bit more insightful to the Heptapod, present and future as one, way of thinking. As Dr. Banks learns to communicate with the aliens, she begins to perceive a shift in perspective where she starts to view the flow and passing of time differently.
Language Communication and Human Perception
How realistic is this perception shift? Language learning, be it alien or not, has been shown to have a profound impact on humans. Not only are we able to communicate with more people, through learning new metaphors and idioms we can glean an insight on how native speakers think and make associations. Even our brains gain benefits – by creating new neural pathways when connecting words with abstract ideas, we train them. We become more capable at planning and making decisions, perceiving our surroundings, having a better memory and much more. We even are at a lower risk for Alzheimer’s or dementia in our old age – all from “simply” learning a new way to communicate.
“Arrival” in a way, seems not only to look outwards to the stars and at the beings beyond them, but also at the nature of humans. People strongly identify with their native language, spoken or written, as it gives them a tool to communicate with others and a baseline on how to perceive the world. And just like Dr. Louis Banks’ worldview shifts with learning an alien language, so does ours when we learn a foreign one.
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