Are they scientists? Or tourists? If they are scientists, they don’t seem to ask a lot of questions.

Theoretical Physicist Ian Donnelly in Arrival

In the recent movie Arrival, where Amy Adams plays a professor of linguistics charged with communicating with recently arrived aliens speaking an incomprehensible language, there is a moment where Adams’ character is forced to explain to a Colonel the order in which she intends to build understanding of the question the Colonel would like her to ask the Aliens: “what is your purpose here?”

Her answer culminates in the observation that the creatures may be so instinctive, so non-rational, that they simply cannot comprehend the concept of ‘purpose’. Whatever they do in life, they merely do. There is no such thing as ‘why’. A ‘why’ question presupposes a rational detachment; we can consider our purpose. If you could ask a cat a ‘why’ question, it would have no conceptual basis for understanding. Cats just do.

A question can only be asked, we must conclude, from a shared standpoint. There must be conceptual agreement before we can begin to frame an answer. Which makes me wonder a bit about IELTS.

When we teach IELTS (and other exams, but especially IELTS), we are most trying to engage students at the level of language, when very often we need to engage them at a much deeper level. Students often do not understand certain concepts which they read, not because they do not have the vocabulary, or are thrown by a structure, but because they do not understand the content. They would not necessarily grasp the point in their own language.

Amy Adams is talking about Aliens, but she is talking to a US Army Colonel. The Colonel is not a stupid man. Far from it. But his various operating discourses give him no immediate insight into the problems Adams is facing. She has to explain the concepts bit by bit, as though to a child. And of course, when you think about it, that is what all teaching and learning amounts to. Getting to grips, slowly and painfully, with a new, slightly different, technically challenging way of conceptualising the world, or at any rate some bit of it. Intelligence may be a transferable skill, but the transfer is slow and annoying. We keep reverting to our known concepts to explain the new, and get fuddled when they do not correspond.

Perhaps we should be teaching our IELTS students, not exam skills and vocabulary, but Classical history, pre-Socratic philosophy, medieval aesthetics, a little fluid mechanics, and so on. It might take a while. But it we would finally be able actually to start talking about some of the subjects in a meaningful way.