Gospel & Culture blog
If I told you a movie was about a linguist who tried to establish a trusting relationship with foreigners so she could learn their language, you probably wouldn't expect it to be an alien movie. The aliens (called heptapods, because of their seven legs, in the film) arrived on earth in twelve pods, but never deboarded their ships. They were unhurried in making their intentions known. Meanwhile, armies around the world desperately wanted to know if the aliens were friend or foe.
Linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) had to learn enough of the Alien language to ask "Why are you here" -- and she needed to know enough vocabulary to understand their answer. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the answer was so ambiguous it could mean "Give weapons" "Give tools" or even "Show your weapons!"
I remember on Tanna Island how often people would ask me, "Why, exactly, did you come here?" Even though I learned enough of the vernacular in a couple months to say, "To translate God's word into your language," a number of people were still suspicious. What's your real intention? Are you going to steal our land? Are you going to make money off of us? I think it took several years, and numerous trips to the hospital, to demonstrate that our intentions were to be helpful.
In the film, it wasn't until Banks walked among the heptapods in their own environment on the ship that she became fluent in their language. Up to that point, she and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) were only boarding the alien ship for a few minutes every ten hours. This can be a stern exhortation for cross-cultural workers: If you spend most of your time with expats, or boarded up in your own home while overseas, you'll never learn the language or culture. You have to get out of the environment you're comfortable in, and immerse yourself with the people you're going to be working with.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor