Things That Matter

Greta Thunberg Was Forced To Apologize For Speaking Multiple Languages For A Political Misunderstanding

Most recently, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg has been making headlines as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. But before she earned this prestigious title, Thunberg occupied the media spotlight for months as an audacious environmental activist from Sweden—a young person infuriated by previous generations’ negligence and lack of accountability for the current climate crisis, which is, sin duda, the most urgent crisis our generation will face in our lifetime.

Thunberg rose to fame late in 2018, when she began skipping class to rally outside the Swedish parliament, calling for stronger action on climate change and more radical environmental policy. This act of protest seemed to instigate similar demonstrations from teens in their own communities, eventually culminating in a widespread school climate strike movement that manifested in weekly multi-city protests. Since her immediate emergence, Thunberg has won numerous awards and even earned a 2019 Nobel Peace Price nomination.

Although Thunberg has been lauded by folks all over the world, inspiring people of all ages and nationalities, she has also received ample criticism from politicians and media, alike.

Most criticism has come from conservative world leaders, many of whom either refute the existence of climate change or simply don’t seem to consider it a serious issue. One of her greatest antagonists, perhaps unsurprisingly, is Donald Trump, who has published several tweets that overtly mock the teenager and minimize her activism efforts.

Like the time Trump shared a video of Thunberg angrily addressing world leaders, sarcastically jabbing at her frustration.

Or the time Trump said Thunberg had an “anger management” problem and needed to “chill.”

Thunberg, in a display of cleverness and class, temporarily changed her Twitter bio to reflect Trump’s December tweet, calling herself “a teenager working on her anger management problem.” The bio also stated that she was “currently chilling and watching a good old fashioned movie with a friend.” She did something similar when Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro said: “Greta said that the Indians were dying because they were trying to protect the Amazon. It is impressive how the press gives voice to such a brat.” In response to Bolsonaro’s comment, Thunberg changed her Twitter bio to a single word: “pirralha,” the Portuguese word for “brat.”

Unfortunately, Thunberg’s quick rise to fame has put a high level of pressure on the teenager. Now that she serves as an ambassador for climate activists everywhere—in addition to being the new face of a generation—Thunberg is closely watched by the media, and she has to be especially careful about what she says and writes.

In a speech at the Fridays for Future Strike in Turin Italy last week, Thunberg said that world politicians should be “put against the wall” for their lack of climate action.

“World leaders are still trying to run away from their responsibilities, but we have to make sure they cannot do that,” she said. “We will make sure that we put them against the wall, and they will have to do their job to protect our futures.”

In English, the phrase “put them against the wall” carries certain connotations—and those connotations are actually quite violent. “Put them against the wall” often refers to “death by firing squad,” something that used to be a relatively common form of capital punishment in the United States, though it is now federally outlawed. This form of execution was also carried out in a military context, and it involved a prisoner standing against a wall, typically blindfolded, while a group of soldiers shot them dead.

After Thunberg made her speech, social media was electric with comments that attacked her use of this phrase, accusing her of using violent rhetoric to further her agenda.

Thunberg also took to Twitter to clarify what she meant. In Swedish, her first language, the phrase “put them against the wall” does not carry the same connotations as it does in English. She apologized for her misuse of the phrase and reiterated that she did not at all mean for it to suggest violence or aggression.

Of course, Twitter overflowed with an abundance of supportive messages from people around the world, discouraging Thunberg from letting the critics get under her skin and applauding her ability to communicate so eloquently in multiple languages.

Latinos are no stranger to the ups and downs of bilingualism—things getting lost in translation, only being able to express an idea in a mezcla of vocabulary, not being able to find the right words in either language. But to those Americans who only speak English, bilingualism is like a superpower:

Regardless, Thunberg handled the backlash with poise, and it’s clear that she is ready to take on criticism from anyone—be they adults, world leaders, or strangers on social media.

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