Est-ce qu’il y a anybody out there (there…there…)? Tackling the “echo chamber” in public engagement

by Angela Gayton

As we kick off a new year of the MEITS project, it seems worthwhile to reflect on our public engagement activities throughout 2017, to ensure we’re thinking carefully about who, of the public, we’re engaging with exactly. Are we simply shouting into a multilingually skilled and aware echo chamber (i.e. are we simply preaching, multilingually, to the converted)? Or is the picture, in reality, more complex than that…?

To address our project aims of creating new knowledge about and changing attitudes towards multilingualism, we ran a number of public engagement activities last year. These included contributing to the Cambridge Festival of Ideas ( ), the UK-wide Being Human festival (, and partnership events with the Cambridge Ethnic Community Forum ( We are extremely proud of the successful outcomes of these events, but what have we achieved in terms of who, exactly, we’ve connected with?

On many occasions, we have so far been successful in broadening understanding of challenges and opportunities presented by multilingualism, even for individuals who may already be quite well versed in such topics. Sparked by information learned during one of the Festival of Ideas activities, for example, a MEITS team member got talking with a parent and child about the most frequently spoken and learned languages around the world, and the extent to which this is reflected in language learning policies in UK schools. The MEITS member realised that the information learned through the activity by this parent and child had empowered them to engage in a deeper, more critical way, with the child’s current language learning experiences as part of the school system, even though this was something they already had a strong interest in. Other attendees of the Festival of Ideas talks might also be considered au fait with language- and multilingualism-related issues (for example, language teachers): nonetheless, the questions they posed to the speakers indicated that these audience members, too, were able to take away new information, or indeed reflect on known information in a different way.

On other occasions, we have shared multilingual experiences and ideas with people who perhaps have not often reflected on such issues, or maybe have thought negatively about certain aspects of multilingualism (for example, worrying about bringing children up with more than one language), but through taking part in activities, listening to talks, or chatting informally with the MEITS team, have experienced an attitudinal shift.

Ultimately, as academics involved in public engagement, it is important to understand that each individual we connect with as part of these activities has something unique and important to gain (and indeed, we from them!). We always need to remember that even if on some occasions, we find ourselves working with those who come from a position of being interested in, and/or sympathetic to, the aims of our research (that is to say, situations that could potentially be given the “echo chamber” label), it is not necessarily the case that everyone shares the same points of view, or the same levels of pre-existing knowledge.

Our aims moving forward with our public engagement activities for this new year are therefore twofold. Firstly, we want to keep ensuring that we do everything we can to encourage those already quite well versed in these ideas to continue to reflect critically on them, and keep seeing multilingualism from new perspectives. Secondly, it is vitally important for us to seek out opportunities to bring our research findings to those who may have not previously thought about the role that multilingualism plays for societies, and the individuals within, even (especially?) those who may be somewhat hostile or resistant. Communicating our research as widely as possible, to as diverse a range of individuals as possible, is something that we’re passionate about, and this practice is extremely valuable, whether we’re “topping up” existing multilingualism knowledge, or beginning to fill what was previously an empty multilingual vessel.

Note: comments are moderated before publication. The views expressed in the comments are those of our users and do not necessarily reflect the views of the MEITS Project or its associated partners.

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