Last fall the movie, Arrival, hit theaters and thrilled viewers and critics alike. More than a simple, science-fiction thriller, the movie’s thought-provoking themes had many looking forward to its DVD and Blu-Ray release on Feb. 14.
Arrival’s themes dig deeper than defending Earth from alien invaders. The message of the film implores the human race to push their fears of the unknown behind them and keep an open mind in order to unite behind a shared goal for the common good.
As the chief executive officer of a company founded 25 years ago to facilitate cross-cultural understanding for the defense, diplomatic, intelligence and law enforcement communities of the United States, and the son of immigrants, I’m acutely aware of the important role communication and understanding play in international dialogue.
The movie uses mankind’s encounter with an alien species to tell a tale of language, culture and humanity—a theme that resonates well amongst America’s diverse population. Communicating with those around us who identify with a different culture, or speak another language, can be difficult. What is meant to be an amiable conversation can potentially lead to misunderstandings, hurt, and in extreme cases, hatred for an entire ethnicity.
That’s why Arrival’s lessons are important. That is why taking time to understand other cultures and learning a second language are vital to educating ourselves about the world and empathizing with those who may not view life exactly like us.
Arrival stars Amy Adams as an acclaimed linguistics professor named Louise who is tapped by the United States government to translate the alien language and analyze their intentions. The main question is, “Do they come in peace, or do they want war?”
Through a series of visits with the alien species, Louise discovers they have a written language and begins to learn the symbols that correspond to a basic vocabulary. As she becomes more proficient, she is able to ask what the aliens want. Louise struggles with the aliens’ response. Are they offering to use a weapon on our behalf, or use it against us?
Fear of a potential threat leads world leaders to cut communications with the aliens and prepare for war. “Language is the first weapon drawn in a conflict,” Louise states.
However, Louise thinks the alien symbol interpreted as “weapon” might have an alternate translation and serve a different purpose in the alien culture—such as the “tool” used to turn adversaries into partners in a non-zero sum game.
Louise says to military and government officials, “We need to make sure they understand the difference between a weapon and a tool, because language is messy and sometimes one can be both.” Louise and her team eventually determine the symbol for “weapon” is actually what the aliens consider a “gift,” and conclude the aliens want nations to cooperate with them and one another for a greater purpose.
Therefore, the movie shifts its focus from an alien encounter to what the purpose of language is—a means of understanding the seemingly unknowable. Additionally, “Arrival” speaks to the importance of culture and identity and how they interconnect and contribute to our humanity.
The movie’s lesson is that taking time to communicate cross-culturally with openness, empathy and humility can lead to our developing a mutual understanding with others, which can have profound and positive effects on the world.
For those Americans who were born elsewhere, or who speak English as a second language, it is important not to turn away from your history and culture. Your customs, traditions and ancestry are unique and valuable. It is important to share your unique cultural experiences with others and, in turn, make an effort to learn about theirs.
For those who have only known English or American culture, it is important to recognize the value of cross-cultural dialogue within American society and to be receptive to different religions and cultures. Take the time to ask more about someone’s experiences and accept the challenge of learning a second language.
Language and culture are part of what we do every day at SOS International LLC (SOSi). With thousands of people with different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, we provide services to the federal government in every U.S. state and around the world that aim to close the cultural divide between “us” and “them.” We know from experience that translation cannot always be literal for it to be effective. Accurate translation takes into account nuanced, and sometimes non-linear, cultural references that transcend immediate understanding.
Being able to not only translate a language, but understand how a culture influences that language is vital to our work and allows us to surround ourselves with unique and inspiring people. That’s why I encourage everyone to see this film and make the effort to learn about something that is alien.
Julian M. Setian is the President and Chief Executive Officer of SOS International LLC (SOSi), a family-owned and operated government services integrator that works, principally, in the Defense and Intelligence sectors.
The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.