Arrival – will Linguist Louise save the world through language?

arrival

In a departure from my usual choice of film – you know, the ones with subtitles and no plot – I went to see Arrival – and it’s got aliens in it. I know – bear with me! So aliens have landed, the world’s on the brink of blowing itself up – who you gonna call? A Linguistics expert, of course! Well to be fair they also called a Scientist, just to even things out, because of that, er, well-known Linguistics/Science paradigm split, with nothing much in between. But who’s better? Let’s look at how Linguist Louise, played by Amy Adams, got the job. Seeing in Arrival most conundrums are framed in an easy-to-manage binary pattern, there are only two Language experts in the world: Louise and the guy from Berkeley (if only it was that simple, the literature review for my thesis would be a hell of a lot easier to write!) There is some sort of academic micro-debate going on though: it all comes down to the dealbreaker question of the Sanskrit word for war. Louise knows ‘the better’ translation, and that’s the end of the line for the guy from Berkeley. Baam! Of course Louise also has another major advantage: a traumatic back story. Perfect! (I just kept hoping throughout the film she wouldn’t get it mixed up with the X-Factor and break into song. Without giving too much away: she didn’t. Phew.) Also in true ‘what people who know nothing about Linguistics think Linguists do’-fashion she speaks lots of languages – this will come in useful later. In contrast, we know nothing about Jeremy Renner’s Ian the Scientist’s recruitment process – he probably slept with someone important, you know those sciency types.

arrival1Brought in to figure out why the aliens – half giant spiders with a leg missing, half massive cracked heel – have come to Earth, Linguist Louise whips out a mini-whiteboard to facilitate communication. Primary school teachers of the world, rejoice, and keep up the good effort – your methods are working! Turns out there is no correlation between the eerie noises the aliens make and what they write. For all we know they may just have been farting. Luckily Linguist Louise stops short of asking Ian the Scientist to explain what correlation means (unlike when she says to her daughter: ‘if you want Science, ask your dad’ – adding in her head ‘how many times, Sweetie? Daddy’s Science, Mummy’s Linguistics!’) Now this is where it gets interesting: Linguist Louise wipes the slate clean (literally) of Maths (aka Science…) scribblings and explains the morphology, syntax and semantics of the question ‘What’s your purpose on Earth?’ in the most pragmatic way (ha – see what I did here?) She even knows how to explain stuff to Forest ‘Ah, now I get it’ Whitaker’s The Colonel, who clearly knows nothing about anything but is tasked with conveying key information to the guys with the finger on the red button. Risky. There’s a curious absence of The President – wouldn’t he (or she – but in the light of recent electoral events more likely he) be on the scene in this kind of Situation with a capital S? Of course – the concept of Donald Trump ever becoming president would have been too far-fetched to entertain, even for a Sci-Fi movie. Shame really, because he would have known just what to do – build a really, really high wall! Simples! As it happens it’s down to Linguist Louise to save the world – no pressure.

If you can suspend disbelief and put up with occasional pockets of ridiculousness, it’s a rare treat indeed to sit back and watch a Linguistics academic (female!) try and stop World (and beyond!) War 3. You don’t even have to be familiar with non-linear approaches to Language Studies, Whorfianism, or Determinism to enjoy how events unfold (but it may help). Personally, they had me at Linguistics.

Arrival, based on Story of your Life by Ted Chiang, directed by Denis Villeneuve, written by Eric Heisserer, and starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, is on general release in cinemas right now.

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Conference proceedings

Ah, conferences… I love them!  That is, I love attending them, listening in awe whilst lurking silently in the back row.  Not so this time!  Having had my arm kindly but firmly twisted to take the plunge and present,  I gulped hard when I discovered that I was due to kick off proceedings as the first speaker at the Language Studies PhD conference 2015 at the University of Reading.  No pressure then!  Well, I survived and am here to tell the tale, and to my surprise I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, even plucking up the courage to ask the odd question or two.  Who’d have thought! Altogether 22 PhD researchers from English Language & Applied Linguistics, the Institute of Education, Psychology & Clinical Language Sciences, and Modern Languages & European Studies talked about their research in front of an audience of fellow-students and lecturers.  In a day that lasted from 9am to 6pm, time flew by as we heard about topics as varied as language policy in Namibia, female twitter users in Saudi Arabia, Greek EFL writing, and aspect binding in Mandarin Chinese, to name but a few. Luckily the audience wasn’t the heckling kind; on the contrary, comments and questions were supportive and helpful.  As well as a round of applause, each speaker also received constructive written feedback on their presentation skills. The conference concluded with a panel session on the Language Studies Working Papers – an annual peer-reviewed digital journal with contributions from staff and PhD-researchers at the University of Reading.  Some of last year’s student-contributors spoke persuasively about the benefits of submitting a paper, such as article-writing practice, attention to detail and development of reviewing skills.  And the best thing: you can develop your text for inclusion in your thesis!  Sounds like a win-win to me. Find all necessary information, including format templates and past issues, by clicking here.   But hurry!  This year’s deadline is 30 April 2015. Many thanks go to Dr. Jackie Laws for organising this enjoyable, instructive and multi-disciplinary day.  It certainly changed not just my view of conferences for the better, but also my view of myself.  If you’re in two minds whether to give presenting a go, here’s my advice: just do it!

Click here to watch a 10 minute video of my presentation: German as a school subject in the UK: discursive representation, motivation and uptake.

How you roll your /r/'s says a lot about you  How you roll your /r/’s says a lot about you!