From Mexican walls to the ivory tower: Polyglots smash the echo-chamber

The media doesn’t tell you what to think, but it tells you what to think about.

How can polyglots end people's isolation in their echo chambers?
How can polyglots end people’s isolation in their echo chambers?

We all live in a personal echo-chamber nowadays, where the same assumptions and world views repeat over and over. One’s echo-chamber, however, remains independent of the chambers of others. So their assumptions never reach my ears, and theirs never reach mine. Some of us want to build walls to keep out the Other, and some of us don’t want to venture outside of our walls to listen attentively to the Other.

After we live in this chamber a while, and here our friends echo it, we think that it is the only discourse going on, that our assumptions are naturally shared by all observant, intelligent people like us.

Until we discover how the Other actually thinks.

Polyglots can change the discourse and remind us of the true complexity out there. They’re already listening. They can save our country!

I was not impressed by Mark Zuckerberg’s statement that Facebook is not to blame for the election because it can tell the difference between fake and real news. The real problem is that the social media site keeps you in this echo-chamber of things you will likely agree with. They could change how they present content, but it would make sustaining their business model more difficult.

Multiple discourses are happening out there, and not just a black-and-white “conservative” and “liberal.” We see multiple conservative and multiple liberal discourses. Not to mention that the Dutch discuss immigration in their own way. Did you know that Mexico not long ago debated building a wall on its Guatemalan border?

Here’s an example of how languages bust the echo-chamber. When I found the above article above about the Mexico-Guatemalan border, I had to search in Spanish. When I searched in English, any mention of Mexican immigration served up countless articles about immigration from Mexico. The US press discusses migration from Mexico. Illegal immigration into Mexico is a Mexican topic, not a US one. The only article I found about the Mexico-Guatemalan border described its effects on the US.

I had to be a polyglot to find that other viewpoint, one that did not assume that the US was at the center.

Recently I found out that a member of our Oromo Table was featured in a segment on Al Jazeera about the current unrest in Ethiopia. I already knew quite a bit about the protests there, as my Oromo teacher had organized a town hall meeting in St Paul that I attended a couple years ago on the same issue. The government, overwhelmingly from the small ethnic group called the Tigray, has been trying to control land claimed by the Oromo. The Oromo, making up about a third of the country, felt disenfranchised because the government of the minority had refused to grant their claim any legitimacy. Watching the video, even though it was in English, helped me understand even more deeply what was going on.

When I saw a video describing the same events on CNN, the protests were simply called “anti-government,” with very little further detail. In further research, I found an opinion piece on with more detail.

Four years ago I wrote how helpful it would be if Americans learned Farsi. As it stands, Americans learn about Iran through American media. We’re stuck in a big, country-wide bubble where the US is the topic of conversation. By reading news in Farsi, the country’s view of our arch-enemy and member of the Axis of Evil, Iran, would change drastically. We would learn more about the world and ourselves.

The website “Words without Borders” caught my attention many years ago. In 2002 George W. Bush pronounced his famous “Axis of Evil” line. Soon after, “Words without Borders” began to publish English translations of stories and poems from Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. Our media had dehumanized the people from these countries by only referring to them as “countries” and erasing their individual faces. This literature rendered the countries’ residents personal and individual, changing my point of view on these countries. (And inspiring me personally to learn Farsi.)

Connecting with other languages plugs us into new discourses, and some of them completely inaccessible without further linguistic knowledge.

Last post, I told you how to connect with a shrinking globe. Here’s what you can do to break out of the media bubble.

  1. After you’ve picked a language of a group in your area, learn about the news from their point of view, both locally and internationally.
  2. Discuss their thoughts and struggles with them—hopefully in their language. What do they think about? How do they struggle in your country? What is their home country struggling with?
  3. Read, hopefully in that language. What are the main topics you keep seeing?
  4. Write. Make what you learn about available to all speakers of your native language. Produce translations of what you’re reading. Do what “Words without Borders” did and infuse our news discourse with something personal, direct from those affected.

Again, you don’t have to be a polyglot to do this. If you do it, you will be a polyglot. And you’ll be helping our and their culture grow and connect. You can challenge the echo-chambers.
Photo by Pinkpenguin25 – Jethro Rodrigo, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

One thought on “From Mexican walls to the ivory tower: Polyglots smash the echo-chamber

  1. Love this post. So true. It’s been really interesting how recent political events in the US are being received in China, for example. I don’t know Chinese, but I talk to my friends who do and who live there.

    Another one of my observations is that headlines along the lines of “Our education/health/taxation system/etc is the worst in the world” appear in all newspapers and these statements are “evidenced” by unfavourable comparisons being made with other countries. Thing is, these same comparisons are being made in all other countries as well, always picking out very select aspects, and making people in Germany, for example, believe that their education system is much worse than the Spanish one, while Spanish newspapers are trying to convince their readers that it’s in, fact, THEIR education system which is inferior to the German one, and so it goes round and round. What it’s really about is that people are suckers for these kinds of headlines – they enjoy grumbling about how crap their country is – and that’s what sells newspapers, in the end.

    Liked by 1 person

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