Proficiency: Arrival

From the Series: Proficiency

Photo by Bruce Turner, licensed under CC BY.

I apologize, because I am going to spoil the ending of the movie Arrival (2016) for you. (The movie is based on a 1998 short story by Ted Chiang entitled “Story of Your Life,” which I haven’t read, but am probably spoiling as well.) In it, a dozen mysterious lozenge-shaped ships have descended from space and hover mysteriously around the world. Inside the ships are pairs of mysterious aliens, which the humans have called “heptapods,” because they have seven legs. This leg-centrism makes sense when you see how the humans come to communicate with the aliens: after a lift assisted by an earthly cherry-picker and a mysterious gravitational field, people end up in a chamber that looks like a stony cross between one of James Turrell’s Ganzfeld rooms and a bulletproof security window. The aliens emerge from a mysterious fog on the other side of the window, so tall that their bodies extend out of sight, leaving only their legs in view.

Conveniently, the aliens use those legs to write, squirting misty ink into blobby circles against the room’s partition. Louise Banks, a linguist played by Amy Adams, discovers this ability after realizing that she can’t parse the spoken alien language at all. It sounds like highly processed camel grunts (which is, in fact, what it is, along with a few other things). Banks has been enlisted by the U.S. military to help communicate with the aliens and, following her failure to talk to them, she tries writing to them, holding up words on a portable whiteboard. The aliens respond with their own otherworldly orthography, and Banks begins to elicit an alien vocabulary. Back at basecamp, aided by a passel of cryptanalysts, some computers, and a handsome, useless physicist played by Jeremy Renner, she decodes the circular alien script, bit by bit.

Then, all of a sudden, she gets it. Amid some geopolitical drama, Banks finally understands the heptapods—not only the message they’ve come to share with Earth, but also their language. She ends up back in the spaceship, but now she’s on the other side of the partition, floating in a blissed-out, dreamlike state, CGI hair waving ethereally in the mist, face to thorax with an enormous heptapod. We learn (this is the spoiler) that the heptapod language, written in circles, is timeless—that the heptapods experience time not linearly, but cyclically, and that they have come to Earth to share a message about a future they have seen but which quarrelsome, linear humans can’t appreciate.

Banks, having achieved proficiency in heptapod, experiences what can only be described as an incredibly strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: learning the alien language not only gives her access to their ways of thinking, but it literally gives her the power to see through time as they do. In a moment, she sees her own future, which, for the heptapods, has already happened. (For the audience, it has already happened as well: a series of interposed flashbacks are revealed to be flash-forwards.) The “arrival” of the title turns out to refer not only to the descent of the alien fleet, but also to this breakthrough moment, which transforms Banks from an anxious, doubtful character into a serene, knowing one. One film critic described its effect on the viewer as “less a sudden twist than sleek unwinding of everything you think you know.”

I offer Arrival’s linguistic fable as a contribution to this conversation about proficiency because it presents an extreme version of a bit of anthropological common sense. As Héctor Beltrán and Alessandra Ciucci have noted in their contributions to this Correspondences session, anthropological interest in proficiency has long focused on how knowing a language enables access to the field. And disciplinary tradition holds, in a kind of latent Whorfianism, that linguistic proficiency not only allows us to communicate with our interlocutors, but also, more consequentially, to try on their thoughts. Like other science fiction concerned with language and alterity, Arrival dramatizes this idea. (Others have noted the movie’s broad anthropological resonances; more narrowly, the plot’s central conceit is effectively an adaptation of Dorothy Lee’s [1950] “Lineal and Non-lineal Codifications of Reality” with space aliens.) In its drama, Arrival demonstrates why proficiency is so loaded. It is simultaneously a pragmatic concern about the basic mechanics of communication and a source of profound questions about difference and what it means to know. Proficiency sits at both ends of the anthropological project: before the beginning, when we just want to be able to talk to someone, and after the end, as that orienting goal we sometimes call “the native’s point of view.”

As Héctor and Alessandra have demonstrated, the basic urge for linguistic proficiency radiates consequences outward: it may concern not only speaking, but also listening; not only language, but also other methodologies for articulating the world. In my own work studying software developers, people often asked me if I “learned to code” so that I could communicate fully with my interlocutors. It should be obvious that engineers speak human languages and that, although we call them languages, a programming language like Python is not the same as a human language like Japanese. However, in the present moment, learning to code is clearly about much more than simple proficiency. For children, students, and the unemployed, learning to code promises access, both to jobs and to a privileged way of thinking about the world. But for job-seekers, proficiency does not seamlessly translate into access. For anthropologists, this is also true in a conceptual register: learning a language or learning to code does not grant us immediate access to physical spaces or states of mind.

Arrival is a useful name for this conflation of proficiency and access. The figure of Louise Banks, floating oceanic in the mist, finally able to see the whole body of the alien and her own future, represents in extremis that “sleek unwinding of everything you think you know” promised by both coding bootcamps and anthropological fantasies of access. Ordinary experiences of proficiency are nothing like this: passing the mandatory graduate-school language exam does not launch you into serene oneness with your interlocutors, and as Héctor points out, the contemporary experience of coding proficiency is not the achievement of a stable mastery but the realization that there are ever more languages and frameworks to learn. We do not find ourselves immersed on the other side of the partition, implausibly breathing the same air as the aliens and suddenly achieving the “alien’s point of view.” In other words, arrival is not something that unproblematically just happens, but rather a powerful organizing myth. Our most famous myth of anthropological arrival—Malinowski, suddenly set down on a Melanesian beach, while his boat sails away—has been subjected to much critique precisely for the way it glosses over the texture of access, the conditions that make the appearance of sudden immersion possible and the ongoing learning process that fieldwork is. Critiques of access and immersion as anthropological ideals (e.g. Helmreich 2007) can also help us reconsider and rework our common sense about proficiency.

To anticipate Cristina Grasseni’s entrance into this conversation, we might attend more closely to the lived experience of learning, as she does with Alpine dairy farmers (Grasseni 2004). Here, proficiency is not a narrow literacy, but the wide-band world of skill, habitus, and tacit knowledge. The transformative effects of enskillment are slow, hard-won, and never finished. This turns the acquisition of proficiency from fieldwork’s precondition into its substance: as Jean Lave (2011) has suggested in her work on apprenticeship, different understandings of what learning entails can help us to think differently about how anthropologists learn. Paying attention to learning does not just change arrival from a mythical moment into a more realistic process. It also foregrounds the technical and social structures on which proficiency and access rely. Floating with the heptapods, like landing on the beach or learning to code, does not just happen, and the promise of arrival, though it orients our efforts, never actually arrives.


Grasseni, Cristina. 2004. “Skilled Vision: An Apprenticeship in Breeding Aesthetics.” Social Anthropology 12, no. 1: 41–55.

Helmreich, Stefan. 2007. “An Anthropologist Underwater: Immersive Soundscapes, Submarine Cyborgs, and Transductive Ethnography.” American Ethnologist 34, no. 4: 621–41.

Lave, Jean. 2011. Apprenticeship in Critical Ethnographic Practice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lee, Dorothy. 1950. “Lineal and Nonlineal Codifications of Reality.” Psychosomatic Medicine 12: 89–97.