A Father's Experiment in Constructed Language

January 17, 2017


Although it can be said that "all languages are made up," for spoken sounds to be a language, they generally have to follow specific rules. While English, Spanish, Russian and many others are commonly known languages, there is an entire other group of sounds known as constructed languages. In short, a constructed language is an artificial or planned human language, where one is not naturally occurring as a result of geography or culture. Also known as a conlang, a constructed language typically only varies from a natural one in that it has been consciously designed by the speakers of other languages.

One of the best known, and most popular, constructed languages in the world comes from the science fiction world of Star Trek. We are of course speaking of Klingon. There are an estimated thirty to forty people worldwide who are fluent in the Klingon language with another few thousand being able to pick out some of the words, like "bat'leth" a double-sided battle sword of honor created by the Klingon Kahless. Contrary to popular belief, most of those fascinated with Klingon are not fans of Star Trek but rather fans of linguistics.

Take Dr. d'Armond Speers, a computational linguist. After hearing about the Klingon Language Institute (KLI) while at Georgetown University, he had a fun idea for an experiment. Shortly after becoming a member of KLI and learning the language, Speers had a son, Alec. He spoke with his wife and came up with an experiment involving Klingon and Alec. "I was interested in the question of whether my son, going through his first language acquisition process, would acquire it like any human language," Speers said.

To prevent any learning disabilities later in life, Alec's mother spoke to him exclusively in English and his father exclusively in Klingon. Up until the age of 3 Alec showed a proclivity for both languages, becoming fluid in both. However as Alec only heard his father, and no one else, speaking Klingon, he began getting frustrated with his father and wouldn't respond to him when Klingon was used. Dr. Speers saw the signs that Alec was no longer enjoying this and made the switch to English.

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