Monoculture of the mind

Monoculture—the agricultural practice of planting, growing and harvesting single strains or breeds of plant and livestock—is efficient. It allows for high rates of production, but only at the expense of high vulnerability to disease. If a hundred acres is populated with the same crop, then one outbreak of a certain pathogen can extinguish output across that hundred acres. I’m describing this, not because I’m a farmer or an environmentalist, but because the concept of monoculture provoked some clarity in my mind. See, multiple times over the past few years I’ve heard different people talk about the importance of speaking multiple languages. I even came across an apocryphal Roger Bacon quote which was something like, “The first duty of the scholar is language.” But why?

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet people from different countries. When I was younger, I spent several summers around the Dutch. The Dutch are remarkable for a few reasons. One of which is that, from an early age, they are taught multiple languages. In fact, in the place where I spent my summers, they often ended up as de facto translators. They would translate what the English kids were saying to the French kids, what the French kids were saying to the German kids, and so on. Thinking about it now, my thoughts are tinged with awe and not a little jealousy. Because the Dutch can comprehend multiple languages their intellectual landscape is populated with a much more diverse array of culture and ideas. Because they can speak multiple languages, they can think in multiple languages, and thus avoid a monoculture of the mind.

This is what people who emphasise the importance of speaking multiple languages are getting at, I believe. A language is a frame, a way of thinking and interpreting the world. One language is a single frame, and a single frame is a monoculture. Monoculture in agriculture is risky enough, but monoculture of the mind? Even more dangerous. If I have only one language in which to think, then my thoughts will be mundane, greyscale, uninteresting. If I have multiple languages in which to think, I will better understand how language shapes thought, and be better able to appreciate and utilise a diversity of ideas and approaches.