Outside of superintelligence thrillers like Lucy or Limitless, it’s rare to have a popular Hollywood blockbuster explore a sliver of cognitive neuroscience. Even rarer is for that sliver to involve language science, which is why I was thrilled to see linguistics front and center in Arrival. Aside from it being an intelligent, well-acted, and fun sci-film film, Arrival refreshingly shows science at work in a (semi)real-world situation, even if some of the scientific principles are exaggerated.
After watching the film, I immediately wondered how language researchers in cognitive neuroscience feel about the movie, specifically its version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which plays a pivotal role in the film. So, I recruited two CNSers – Angela Grant of Penn State University and Benjamin Zinszer of the University of Rochester – to go to the movies and share their thoughts.
Both of them are excited to see linguistics in the limelight. “Arrival emphasizes that language research is just as important as more ‘typical’ scientific field, like physics,” Grant says. “For me that is a huge deal, especially given the current educational climate.” She points out that liberal arts, including linguistics, are getting increasingly cut out of job training, even though the critical analysis and abstract thinking skills that those fields teach are more important than ever – especially when dealing with aliens.
For Zinszer it was less about the portrayal of linguistics itself and more about seeing the scientific process at work. “I personally appreciated seeing scientists being portrayed as hard workers, problem solvers, and human beings instead of just eccentric geniuses,” he says. “The story is honest about the uncertainty, disagreements, and failure that precede an exciting scientific breakthrough.”
But, they both point out, that the movie takes some great liberties, especially when using the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to explain the transformation that the lead character played by Amy Adams undergoes. Spoiler alert: Adam’s character Louise Banks gains special powers (I won’t fully spoil it!) by studying, learning, and becoming immersed in an alien language.
The movie uses Sapir-Whorf to explain that language can rewire the brain. “This idea isn’t totally false,” Zinszer says, “but it spoiled the fantasy for me a bit, as a psycholinguist, to see Louise’s heroic role lean so heavily on a misinterpretation of linguistic relativity.” Says Grant: “the reality is about 1% as dramatic as the movie makes it out to be.”
So, what is the deal with Sapir-Whorf? Developed by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, the hypothesis can be interpreted in two ways: deterministic and relative. “The movie takes a deterministic bent; learning the alien language gives Louise a skill no human has ever had before,” Grant says. “In reality, most research focuses on the relative, and the effects that people find are much smaller.”
“Language doesn’t so much ‘rewire’ your brain as it provides a cheat-sheet to quickly look up useful information” -Benjamin Zinszer
Indeed, over the last several decades, researchers have tested the hypothesis in multiple studies, and so-called “linguistic relativity” has supplanted “linguistic determinism” in interpreting Sapir-Whorf. For example, in the 1960s, Susan Ervin of the University of California, Berkeley, and her colleagues observed that speakers of the Navajo language in the southwestern United States did not seem to have a word for the color orange in the same way that English does. Speakers of Navajo might call it “light red” or “yellow-ish.” But research since then has found that language does not necessarily change how these colors are perceived.
In 2007, Lera Boriditsky of the University of California, San Diego, a leader in the study of linguistic relativity, conducted a study looking at how Russian and English speakers differ in the color judgment. English speakers use the word “blue” to describe both a light blue sky or a dark blue ocean, but Russian speakers have two different words for these colors. Boriditsky’s team devised some difficult color-comparisons between different shades of blue for English speakers and Russian speakers, and they found Russian speakers were better at making these comparisons quickly.
But had language “rewired” the brains of Russian and English speakers to change their color perception? Says Zinszer: “If there were a permanent rewiring due to language, we might expect that this advantage for Russian would still appear if the research participants weren’t able to use language to help them during the task.”
In a follow-up study, Boriditsky’s team found that was not the case. The researchers introduced an interfering language task, remembering a list of eight numbers (such as “three seven two six nine four five seven”), during the color judgement task. When both Russian and English speakers had to concentrate on rehearsing these number words instead of thinking about color words, the Russian advantage for comparing different shades of blue disappeared.
“In this sense, language doesn’t so much ‘rewire’ your brain as it provides a cheat-sheet to quickly look up useful information,” Zinszer says.
Linguistics ≠ Translation
If cognitive neuroscientist Angela Grant (Penn State University) could change one thing about the way Arrival portrays linguistics, she would tweak the backstory of the main character, Louise Banks. Shown as a language master, with Russian, Mandarin and Farsi under her belt among other language, Banks could feed preexisting myths and stereotypes that a linguist is simply an expert translator.
“The idea that a linguist is essentially a glorified translator is both one of the most common and the most damning because it perpetuates the idea that linguistics is not a science. It’s pervasive enough that people have even made cartoons about it,” Grant says.
In his own research, Zinszer is looking at how learning a new language changes the way we think about everyday objects. Barbara Malt of Lehigh University and her colleagues have documented a surprising amount of difference between languages in naming various household objects. This work, Zinszer says, “inspired me to think about people like Louise from Arrival, people who are learning a new language that differs so dramatically from their first language.”
Specifically, he is exploring whether people struggle more to name an object in their first language after they’ve learned a new language with a different way of categorizing objects. He works with Mandarin Chinese speakers and American English speakers, asking them to look at many pictures of common objects while naming them, often in an fMRI scanner. “The results of my research may come as bad news to Louise Banks: Learning a new language while still immersed in your own language community has very little effect on the way you categorize objects,” he says.
Real-world language research is important and complex, and the underlying ideas are nuanced.
The bottomline is that real-world language research is important and complex, Grant says, and the underlying ideas are nuanced. “And although it doesn’t make for exciting entertainment, linguistic relativity is more about small advantages or biases than it is about gaining new senses or abilities,” Zinszer says. But research in this area can have huge impacts: For example, Chaleece Sandberg at Penn State is working on therapies for aphasia that are informed by models of semantic memory developed by linguistics and psycholinguists.
Insofar as it is sparking discussions about linguistics and language in society, I give Arrival a lot of credit. It reminds us that learning a new language is a powerful tool for understanding other people and cultures. Whether it’s meeting aliens or a new neighbor, the movie makes a powerful case for patience, perspective, and understanding. That’s a message I would love to see more of, especially this holiday season.
-Lisa M.P. Munoz