Arrival. If you haven’t seen it you should. It’s a sci-fi suspense film. Not the kind your physicist friend might spoil by rolling her eyes. It’s one that science geeks and normal folks can all get behind.

Here’s the story: aliens visit earth in a giant, monolithic space ship. They arrive to deliver a message. Amy Adams is called in to translate. As she struggles to decode the alien warning, learns their language, and solves the puzzle her whole understanding of life shifts. She even perceives time differently.

The premise of Arrival is fun to toy with—how does language affect our perception of the world? There’s indigenous societies that don’t have words for numbers [1], and some research indicates that when you speak more than one language you actually see and understand the world differently [2] [3]. Fascinating.

But it wasn’t the mystery of language and cognitive science that really got me thinking. It was a question my 11-year-old daughter, Mimi, asked in the middle of the film: If their so smart, how come they just don’t speak her language? Hello, Mimi! If the aliens spoke English, Amy Adams wouldn’t have to save the earth and it wouldn’t be a sci-fi thriller. Duh?

But Mimi has a point. Why didn’t they? Why did those aliens (who are advanced enough to travel through space and time) make poor Amy Adams and the rest of the world work so darn hard?

This question stuck with me because I remember sitting in classes that felt like Arrival. I’d show up every day, enter the big stone building, and attend class with the task of understanding and decoding. The instructor would draw the same confounding symbols on the board, just like the day before. I’d go home confused.

“The instructor would draw the same confounding symbols on the board, just like the day before. I’d go home confused.”

Slowly, I guess I picked up the language. Fast-forward 10 years, and I become the alien. I was one of those instructors. Looking back at my time teaching, I often wonder how I might have made it easier for my students to join the conversation. I wonder how I could have changed my language, my practice, my approach to learn from them, their language, their funds of knowledge.

As humans, we create our social reality through dialogue, conversation. Together we make meaning and agree upon the concepts that govern our understanding and actions in the world. When their is no dialogue, there is no shared social reality. Like Amy Adams and the aliens, we exist in a parallel space without intersection–an invisible wall separating us from each other and understanding.

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