I just watched Arrival. A great Movie and quite deep on many levels too. Requires watching a few times. Anyway, we see that as Louise learns the alien language, she starts seeing the future, or rather sees time as non-linear. My question is, that it seems that she is not the only one who learns their language, the Chinese and Russians seem to have communicated with them too and thats besides Ian, who learns the language together with Louise.

So why is she the only one who now has a new perception of time? We know the others don't because she was the only one who spoke to the Chinese general, Im pretty sure the Chinese scientists were a lot closer. Also, Ian didn't see their daughter dying, only Louise did.

  • She wasn't, she already had the more advanced mind. Therefore, she just learned the language faster than others.
    – Möoz
    Oct 24, 2017 at 22:00

5 Answers 5


Louise has a unique understanding of the language.

Many of the scientists have worked out some of the vocabulary and seem to have made some progress in communication. But Louise has immersed herself more in the language than the others.

But the implications are not apparent until very late. In a final splurge of communication, done as the scientists start to panic about the reaction of the other nations to the partial communications they have interpreted, the aliens send a very rich message: not one word but a whole screenful of words. Nobody can make sense of it until Louise has a moment of insight and can read it all and get the point of it. Only at this moment does the full intent of the language have an effect on her: and when it does it rewrites her sense of time.

She then uses this knowledge of the future to avert a potential catastrophe. We only see the implications of this in the postscript (which may be actually her memory of the future) where many of the players meet for the first time at a celebration of her book on the language and one of them triggers her memory of what she did to talk down the hostility.

The key point is that she is the first person to completely grasp the alien language and therefore the first to experience its ability to undo her brain's sense of linear time.

  • 1
    Besides that, it's also mentioned that the others communicate with the aliens by whole other means (e.g. through a Mah-Jong game) and not necessarily through those circle-thingies at all.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Jan 13, 2017 at 17:03
  • @NapoleonWilson Yes other countries communicate to the aliens in different ways. But Louise is the first who fully grasps what the aliens are saying to us. Since it is their language that is the technology to rewrite the brain, that is the key.
    – matt_black
    Jan 14, 2017 at 1:12
  • @NapoleonWilson: No. It's clear form the dialog that the Chinese communicate through the alien writing (circle things). They used mahjong as a learning medium just as Louise used a whiteboard. The mahjong board is the whiteboard and marker, not the alien writing. It is very clear from the dialog that the Chinese was the first to get the blast of thousand circles when the general mentioned in the intercepted phone call that their scientists were studying the alien's "gift". And also clear when the general said the aliens told them to "use the weapon".
    – slebetman
    Mar 6, 2017 at 2:32
  • @slebetman Yes, the Chinese have some way of communicating with the aliens. But they clearly have not understood what "use the weapon" means which is why Louise has to call the Chinese general to prevent a catastrophe. Louise seems to be the first to get that the language is the "weapon" and fully grasp the implications.
    – matt_black
    Mar 6, 2017 at 10:51
  • @matt_black: Yes. They have misunderstood the alien language. But that means that they are communicating in the alien language. It's what the aliens came here to do - to give humans their language. If they get to the point where the aliens tell them "use what we give you" (use weapon) it means the aliens have given them their language (the dump of thousands of circles) - the aliens gave the Chinese their language before they gave the American team (Louise)
    – slebetman
    Mar 6, 2017 at 13:14

As I understood it, Louise was the only one who actually understood the alien language, rather than merely translating. Different shades of meaning can be missed by simply translating word for word (example: tool vs weapon). Every language has idioms; phrases that don't make sense literally, but the meaning is understood to those who understand the language (example: "raining cats and dogs"). Louise's ability to understand time out of sequence grew stronger in conjunction with her understanding of the language.

While Ian worked closely with Louise, his approach to the language was mathematical, and he didn't share her way of understanding it. As for the other scientists around the world, their misunderstanding of the alien language led to their preparations for war, and to the rogue Americans setting off the bomb.

  • Also, it can be assumed that she shares more time with the aliens as all the other linguists involved at the other stations. For example, we learn that the Russian linguist has been shot. If China is planning to go to war, they would hold back their linguists as well. Oct 27, 2020 at 6:45

The way I see it, we don't know that everyone else wasn't getting visions of the future. In fact, it seems like everyone gets shaken up by the experience of meeting with the aliens, so it's very possible that everyone was like Louise and just didn't tell anyone about it. What they were missing, though, was the extra explanation that the language itself was linked to seeing the future. That's not something most people would be able to figure out on their own.

Remember, too, that Louise was able to read a book she would write about the language. From this, she was able to gain an even greater understanding and mastery of the alien language and the ability to see the future. It's possible everyone else was only days or even hours away from a similar breakthrough. However, since Louise solved the problem for them, they didn't need to keep searching, and could have waited to read the book normally.

So, in summary, it was the knowledge that her visions were visions of the future, and the breakthrough of using those visions to read a book that didn't exist yet, that allowed Louise to pull ahead of the competition and save the day. It's possible the other camps were days or even hours away from similar breakthroughs, but of course we never actually get to see that.

(Also, maybe no one else actually read Louise's book)


She went into the ship, a part that no one else went into. She understands that the alien wants to give a gift to help humanity so that in three thousand years humanity can help them. The gift was communication; for sight into the future.
This is something no one else did, this is why she was the only one that could see the future. The aliens left because of the way they were treated by humans, otherwise they may have given the gift to more people.

  • Louise is transported into the ship, the same medium as Abbot and Costello. This is where she communicates with them more deeply. They understand her spoken words and she understands their visual language intuitively. I assume that A&C can physically manipulate Louise's physical structure so she can survive in their atmosphere. An unknown is did they change the structure of her brain thereby aiding the understanding. As to the second point: I see no evidence that the aliens left because they were upset. They knew they had achieved their goal so could be on their way. Pls upvote ans above.
    – BeNice
    Aug 29, 2018 at 16:54

After the Aliens leave, we know that Louise dedicated herself to teaching the language, presumably so others could choose to study and fully learn the Aliens' language and receive their "gift".

From all the flashes that Louise has, they are all of her future, never of her past. This could mean that others eventually learn the language, and then from then on, perceive their present and future in non-linear fashion, enlightened in the same way as Louise. Otherwise, if no one else eventually received the "gift", mankind would have gone back to its old ways after the Alien threat left. No lasting unification of our planet would have occurred.

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