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EFL Lessons from the 2016 Film Arrival

by Tristan Cotterill

As a teacher, it is best for us to use a range of techniques to keep our students’ attention, and for our classes not to become stale. One of those forms is through the use of video and film. We can learn a lot from films too, from understanding what our students currently find “cool” to being able to extrapolate ideas for us to grow and develop.

One such film is the 2016 film ‘Arrival’. Louise Banks, played by the brilliant Amy Adams is a leading United States of America (US) Linguistics Professor who is enrolled into the US military to lead the US communication efforts with the unknown alien species that recently arrived in US air space. It is certainly a refreshing take on the classic alien films, which could be considered a major reason why it was received and reviewed so highly. Despite this, on first impression. it would not be considered a source of inspiration when it comes to teaching.
Teaching English as a foreign language or as a second language, hereby known as EFL and ESL respectively, which is a sub-section of the larger teaching profession and a further sub-section of English teaching, could be considered a challenging job. Not just on the professional side but it also requires living abroad in countries whose languages are not necessarily one of your own.

In the film, Amy Adams’ character goes about having to teach her new planetary arrivals the English language, and in return she begins to understand theirs. This got me thinking about my own job in China. There surely cannot be many more combinations of two languages that are more disparate than English and Chinese and for some of my first time English students it must surely feel entirely alien to them, as the Chinese language seemed to me when I when I first became immersed in it.

“Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together.”

Across a few scenes Professor Banks breaks down a complex question into its finite components, explains why meaning and understanding are two sides of the same coin, and why a combination of teaching, reading and speaking is faster than a single approach. In a conversation with Colonel Weber played by Forest Whitaker:

Col. Weber: You’re gonna teach them your name and Ian’s?

Dr. Louise Banks: Yes, so that we can learn their names, if they have names, and then introduce pronouns later.

Col. Weber: These are grade school words. Eating, walking. Help me understand.

[Dr. Banks writes “What is your purpose on Earth?” on the whiteboard]

Dr. Louise Banks: OK, this is where you want to get to, right?

Col. Weber: That is the question.

Dr. Louise Banks: Right. So, first we need to make sure that they understand what a question is. The nature of our request for information depends on the response. Then we need to clarify the difference between a specific “you”…and a collective “you”. We don’t want to know why a ‘Joe’ alien is here, we want to know why they all landed. A purpose requires an understanding of intent. We need to find out ifo they make conscious choices, or is the motivation so instinctive that they don’t understand any why question at all. And biggest of all we need to have enough vocabulary with them, that we understand their answer.”

In many aspects it is exactly what an EFL/ESL teacher has to do. We take children with no English knowledge and work with what they have, names. We can only teach upon what they already know, and so we develop a vocabulary bank, so that they understand and respond.

The film’s overall base premise is from the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis,” the theory that language transcends the simple purpose of communicating ideas and goes into shaping and moulding those thoughts. In conversation with Ian Donnelly, a physicist played by Jeremy Renner:

“Ian Donnelly: If you immerse yourself into a foreign language, then you can actually rewire your brain.

Dr. Louise Banks: Yeah, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. It’s the theory that the language you speak determines how you think and…

Ian Donnelly: Yeah, it affects how you see everything.”

This theory is controversial but one of its arguments for it is that Chinese-speakers tend to think of time running from top to bottom, as opposed to English-speakers, who think of time running left to right. Which again brings it back to teaching EFL, where I recently experienced this particular argument among my students. One of the main reasons why they did not achieve the top mark was because they answered a question in the wrong tense.
Where the English language completely changes the sentence composition to determine whether we are talking in the past, present, or future tense; Chinese declares the period of time prior to what they are discussing, the composition never changes.

Overall it is a very enjoyable film, and it is a unique source of inspiration for EFL/ESL teachers who probably never thought that ‘aliens’ could put our individual lessons into the larger perspective.

I will end by saying, this film serves as a reminder that teaching English to those whose first language is so different from our own, it takes time. Be patient, be kind.

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