It appears a clever trick the visitors were using...

...was to actually encourage the humans to learn their language, instead of vice-versa, as that was the way they would give "their gift to humanity". One of the issues I and others probably had was why would a super-advanced alien civilisation have such trouble communicating with a more "primitive" life form?

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    We're smarter than elephants but we have real trouble learning their language. To the point that after having studied it for a century, we've only just realised that we missed something
    – Valorum
    Sep 29, 2018 at 15:19
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    Since the visitors' mode of cognition was utterly different from ours (due to their language, although the cause-and-effect there would be difficult to tangle out - not least because cause-and-effect itself is called into question here), their perspective would be totally different, also. From their perspective, we "already had" learned their language. "Playing dumb" is a concept that only makes sense in a cognitive context employing a linear time experience.
    – tbrookside
    Sep 29, 2018 at 15:40
  • @tbrookside While I understand your point from a non-linear perspective, I believe they have to teach this non-linearity to a linear civilisation, as their prime purpose for initiating contact. Thus the movie could be re-watched from a perspective of the visitors teaching humans as opposed to communal learning. And more so, if they could perceive the future, then they would have already known the human language via speech/ telepathy, which is indicated in the final scenes... ie. they would have "already known" the language before they were taught it.
    – SaltySub2
    Sep 29, 2018 at 15:44
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    Doubling up my comment to add - it may have been impossible for the visitors to learn our language, in any event. It may have been vastly easier for a creature with a linear-time cognition, epistemology and language (us) to learn to see all time at once than the reverse. To them, learning our language would be like our deliberately setting out to forget how to reason, how to speak, how to read, etc.
    – tbrookside
    Sep 29, 2018 at 15:44
  • @tbrookside As per my just-edited comment though if they exist outside of linear time then they would have learnt the language "already" and their contact is very much a one-way teaching of humans :D
    – SaltySub2
    Sep 29, 2018 at 15:46

1 Answer 1


The aliens in Arrival make contact with the humans and try to get them to learn the their language because it's important that the humans learn the alien language, not the other way around.

By grasping the alien language and thus the thought processes necessary to understand it, the main character Louise

gains the ability to see past and future events (as the aliens do) and thus avert the attack on the alien ships by the Russians, Chinese and others.

Also, the aliens reveal

that the reason they do this is that in the far future (from the human linear perspective) they will need help from humans.

So, the aliens are not "playing dumb" about understanding human language. Maybe they do understand human language, maybe they don't. From their perspective it's irrelevant because they need the humans to understand their language in order for humans to gain the new perspective on past and future time.

Presumably just coming out and saying "hey x in your language means y in our language" would not let the humans make the necessary mental leaps for them to change their perception of time.

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