To see or not to see: Arrival (2016)

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

By Cheng WenQi (19J06) and Hudson Zhao (20J05)

This is the first of our seven-part series called To See Or Not To See, in which we review some of our favourite films that deserve revisiting, especially in a time when it's best for us to stay at home.

Arrival is a science fiction movie based on the 1998 short story by Ted Chiang. It is a first-contact film unlike any other as it breaks away from the cliche of war with aliens, through communication to avoid war with the main character linguist Louise Banks. Banks goes through a process of linguistic investigation that academics have deemed as an accurate portrayal of the process of communicating with aliens in real life. With a seemingly small confusion of an alien word that could mean "weapon" or "tool", Earth was nearly thrown into war with the aliens. Banks proceeds to discover the nature of the aliens' language, which is in the form of palindromic symbols.In the process of learning the language, she begins having premonitions of the future.

As it turned out, the language gave humans the ability to forsee the future to a certain extent. With this understanding, Banks was successful in helping humanity avoid war with the aliens. At the end of the movie, it was alluded to that humanity, as a result of the aliens' gift of language, would eventually become more unified than ever.

This movie elucidates the power of language, demonstrating how conflict can arise as a result of miscommunication. Words, as the philosopher John Locke discussed in Book Three of "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding", are mere representations of ideas and not ideas themselves. Hence, it is easily conceivable that words are very much imperfect for communication. Yet, it is our only means of doing so. To compound this difficulty, there exist hundreds of different languages with countless different words. Furthermore, some concepts are even culturally specific and are not directly "translatable", such as the concept of "Waldeneinsamkeit" in German, which describes the feeling of being alone in the woods and feeling connected to nature. With the advent of globalisation, people who speak different languages often find themselves living in the same geographical location.

This is especially so in our country, Singapore.

We have always been taught that English is our common language. We have lived most of our lives thinking that, as a country, our language barriers are well managed and we communicate well as a society. Yet, Covid-19 has highlighted how language barriers have further exacerbated the isolation of an essential yet vulnerable group in our society: our migrant workers.

As Covid-19 spread among migrant workers, it became evident that the language barrier was an issue. There was a scramble to find translators for Bengali-speaking migrant workers so that they could communicate their symptoms to doctors. There were also initiatives to translate government directives relating to Covid-19 so that migrant workers did not unwittingly break new regulations that they did not understand, and have their work passes revoked as a result. There is a severe lack of mental health resources in languages understood by the many migrant workers, stressed out by Covid-19.

Due to this neglect of their living conditions and isolation, they have effectively become the ‘weakest links’ in Singapore’s defence against Covid-19. In hindsight, their inferior living conditions are chronic, problems that receive too little attention. The government's subsequent promise to build better dormitories nearer to the community has sparked a wave of protest, a textbook example of the "not in my backyard" mentality. in a video by Rice Media, one interviewee commented that he did not want migrant workers living near him as they "do not understand" government directives about measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and it is "hard to tell them". It is almost as if the migrant workers are the aliens in Arrival. Their thoughts, behaviours and habits are inconceivable to Singaporeans because of language and cultural barriers.

What is the solution to this, then?

Unlike in the movie, we will not gain powers to see into the future if we learn Bengali. However, like in the movie's ending, our social fabric will be strengthened if we do not neglect the existence of the 300,000 workers in Singapore, many of whom will soon be living much closer within our community. We may argue that it is their responsibility to learn English. Yet, we must understand that to them, learning English is secondary to earning money to send back to their homes. Where and when, as they work up to 12 hours a day in jobs shunned by Singaporeans, do we expect them to learn English? It is thus crucial that there are initiatives, perhaps by the community, perhaps mandated by the government, to overcome these barriers in the near future. Furthermore, would it be too much to ask of us to learn a word of greeting or two in Bengali dialects so that we may have a friendly word for the migrant workers who will soon be living within our communities?

Science fiction movies about first contact have traditionally portrayed alien-ness as violent, malicious and something to chase away from our world. It is perhaps a reflection of the acknowledged need for greater empathy and understanding in our world that made Arrival such a successful movie. After all, if we can learn to communicate with an alien race, there is hope that we can learn to communicate better within the human race.

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