There are a billion people in China. A BILLION people! That means that if you’re a one-in-a-million guy, there are a thousand people just like you.
— Jerry Seinfeld
Now that everyone can meet anyone they want, we can fall more easily into a group of people who think just like us. Through the internet and global mobility, people can meet anyone of any background or any point of view from any country. We have a giant pool to draw from. Liberal Muslims in Baghdad can discuss with liberal Christians in Seattle. Hindu nationalists can find sympathetic minds among anti-Muslim Nigerians.
This ability is morally neutral. For the isolated queer kid in a small town, connecting with someone of like mind can literally save their life. At the same time, Daesh can recruit among disaffected youth anywhere in the world.
Either way, our ability to live in an echo-chamber increases exponentially year by year as it’s easier to find people just like us.
Our opportunities to hear challenging or opposing views simultaneously becomes more and more difficult as we surround ourselves with people we agree with. This happens in spite of how easy it is to find opposing views.
As humans, though, we prefer to surround ourselves with people similar to us.
Polyglots, however, tend to surround themselves with people different from them. In order to learn languages, they have to find people from somewhere else, with different assumptions and world views.
Learning languages often forces me to speak with people different from me. Obviously, their language and culture differ from mine.
When I learn, I often encounter people of very different socio-economic groups from my own. The fact is, a large portion of the educated people of the world today speak English. If I want to find a monolingual speaker of another language, I may need to find someone with very little education. For example, when I was in Morocco, the best people to practice Moroccan Arabic with were ones who spoke no English and no French. So I spent a lot of time chatting with beggars and guards.
Or someone older than me. Decades ago, English was not as common, and the methods for teaching were not as effective. So when I wanted to speak Swedish in Sweden, it helped to speak with older dairy farmers. I got to speak Norwegian with elderly people in the streets. I speak Spanish with construction workers in the US.
As I find these people, I learn different points of view. I immerse myself in different daily concerns, political views, and humor.
Even polyglots, though, can fall into a common trap.
We meet people who think like us all over the world. As a result, we can begin to think that our ideas are universal. I meet a liberal Christian in South Africa and conclude that liberal Christianity is more universal than the “provincial” fundamentalists of my own country. Or I meet a capitalist entrepreneur from Nepal and I think that capitalism really is the solution to the world’s problems, and that the bleeding-hearts of my own country just don’t see things as “broadly” as I do. You see, I see things globally, not just locally.
Leading business schools fall guilty of this. They rightly claim that they are international. Since students matriculate from all over the world, one can think one has a representative sampling of world views.
You may find that they think suspiciously the same, however. The students from other countries, however, often come from the same socio-economic class in their country and share a lot of the same values as each other. Yet they represent a 2% minority in their home countries.
The echo-chamber can lead us to false conclusions because we do not look for data outside of our group or on-line “community.” While made up of people from all over the world, it may only represent one minority view from all those countries.
If I want to use my languages to encounter ideas that truly challenge my way of thinking, I need to try harder.
Language motivates me to get out of my echo-chamber. Here are the steps to take:
- Find someone who speaks no English. It may take a while, depending on where you are and what language you’re learning.
- Ask them what worries or frustrates them the most.
- Ask them to tell you a joke. You won’t understand, so you’ll probably have to fake the laugh, but you will surely learn great vocabulary.
- Tell other speakers of that language what you heard. If they roll their eyes or disparages “those people,” then you know you got out of the echo-chamber.