First Klingon-English Bilingual Child?

It’s an experiment that was bound to happen – a linguist has taught his child to be fluent in both Klingon and English. There is a lot of mockery occurring…even though this story is on a science fiction forum. It’s definitely an unusual concept.

So what are my thoughts? While I’m not sure it would be something I would do, it may or may not be too drastic. A lot depends on whether the parent, computational linguist d’Armond Speers spoke ONLY in Klingon or BOTH Klingon in English. The original story from the Minnesota Daily says only Klingon, but a comment from Ultralingua (who uses Speers as a consultant) claims it was both Klingon and English.

Given that Speers is said to be a linguist and that news articles often distort linguistic issues, I will give Speers the benefit of the doubt. Even if he only spoke Klingon, I will assume that other relatives used English, so his son would be in a bilingual environment. That means, that I think it’s safe to assume that the son did acquire English. (P.S. According to Wired, his wife used English so that their son could become bilingual)

What about the Klingon acquired? One question I had is how different the phonology would be from English. In theory Klingon has non-English sounds…but again there are no real native speakers of Klingon. For most adult speakers, I am assuming that Klingon in the U.S. is essentially spoken with a U.S. English accent (and local accents elsewhere). I don’t know what Dr. Speers Klingon accent is like, but I will assume HE learned it as an adult and that his native language(s) will impact his Klingon phonology.

I would have the same question about morphology and syntax. Although there are non-English features built in to Klingon, again the fluent speakers are almost all adult learners (who probably use it in limited circumstances). I suspect that local language features creep in.

The result may actually be something like a creole Klingon, similar to creoles in the Caribbean, Africa and the South Pacific. These are the result of children being exposed to pidginized European languages. In many cases, particularly in the South Pacific, we know that the result is a language with a European lexical items but with lots of Austronesian features included (words, grammatical structure, changes in pronunciation). These features are one reason why an English creole like Tok Pisin is unrecognizable from standard English

Another question is whether the child will maintain Klingon or not. In theory he could remain bilingual…but I suspect he will begin to encounter “negative attitudes from his peer group” in elementary school if not sooner. That is, if he speaks Klingon with other children, few will understand and there may be serious jeering involved. We do know from research that if your peer group does not use a form and/or expresses a hostile attitude, the child will NOT be motivated to maintain it. Both is pretty fatal. There is a good chance the Klingon fluency will be diminished from lack of overall use.

The truth is that the “Klingon community” has a hard battle. Obviously, its nobody’s native language, and unlike other minority languages, few professional linguists are interested. They tend to worry more about languages with longer histories and actual native speakers which are in danger of becoming extinct. The fact that the language is associated with a “fringe” culture gives it even less credibility.

We linguists may be acting a little closed minded though. Clearly someone cared enough about this language to pass it on. And it is not the first time an “artificial language” has been acquired by children – I have heard that some children have been taught Esperanto from birth. One commenter says that some people meet and marry through learning Esperanto, so that Esperanto would become the household language. Again I assume that an Esperanto speaking child would eventually become bilingual in some other language (because I am really not aware of a large-scale monolingual Esperanto community).

I do think it is worth investigating the Esperanto phenomenon, because we would be seeing another way to create a “new” fully human language. Ironically though, I think if more Esperanto native speakers are born, Esperanto will do the one thing it’s not supposed to do – develop into local dialects and begin to get the irregularities that other human languages have.

P.S. – Actual Results

Trust Wikipedia to have additional information. Apparently this experiment was attempted in the late 1990s, but as expected the child Alec eventually chose English as his main language. The article also reports that there were many missing lexical items in Klingon including table and pacifier. If this were like other dual language scenarios, I suspect that Klingon would be acquiring a lot of English borrowings….

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