English-Klingon bilingualism

From a reader of this blog:

A linguist named d’Armond Speers has been in Colorado news lately because his wife is running for the school board in Denver. Some years ago, Speers decided to speak to his baby son only in Klingon, while his wife used English. This continued for five years until the kid refused to respond to Klingon. I am wondering what your opinion is of an experiment like this? Good for the kid, or just notorious for the dad?

The story from Wikipedia about the Klingon Language Institute:

Dr. d’Armond Speers is an American computational linguist and a member of the KLI.

He graduated from Georgetown University in the Spring of 2002. His dissertation topic was “Representation of American Sign Language for Machine Translation.”

Speers is known for having undertaken the endeavour to raise his child bilingually in English and Klingon; Speers spoke in Klingon and his wife in English. A few years into his life, the child began rejecting Klingon and gravitating towards English, as he could use English with many more speakers. At the time of Speers’ attempt, Klingon even lacked words for many objects common around the house, such as “table”. The experiment ultimately failed when the child refused to use Klingon when he got older.

So here we have the type of simultaneous bilingualism (“a form of bilingualism that takes place when a child becomes bilingual by learning two languages from birth” (Wikipedia link)) in which the languages are separated by person. There is some controversy (fairly deftly handled in the Wikipedia entry) about the advantages or disadvantages of simultaneous (as opposed to sequential) bilingualism, but the weight of the evidence is that simultaneous bilingualism is no handicap in cognitive development, and some recent evidence suggesting that it may confer some cognitive advantages. As for separation by person, there is substantial evidence that kids are adept at disentangling the languages on their own, without separation by person.

Putting these things together, Speers’s experiment was not harmful to the child and might have conferred some cognitive advantages.

But the later course of simultaneous bilingualism depends on a great many factors, especially having to do with the utility of the languages in the child’s world, in particular the practices of the child’s peer group. In some contexts, the child may abandon one language (sometimes maintaining passive understanding of it) under pressure from the peer group. That’s what happened with Speers’s son: how useful could Klingon be in an English-immersion context?

4 Responses to “English-Klingon bilingualism”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    And I thought my three year old granddaughter was growing up confused! She lives in rural France with my daughter (a French-English bilingual) and my son-in-law, a French national who speaks fluent (though accented) English. At day care she only speaks French. They read to her mostly in English.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      From the Wikipedia piece:

      It is estimated that half of the world is functionally bilingual, and the majority of those bilinguals are ‘native speakers’ of their two languages.[Wolfgang] Wölck has pointed out that there are many “native bilingual communities”, typically in South America, Africa, and Asia, where “monolingual norms may be unavailable or nonexistent”.

  2. Victor Steinbok Says:

    I knew a number of children growing up in multilingual households, including my own. In several cases, especially where languages were associated with specific individuals, some of these children appeared to have had delayed onset of speech. But this had no impact on their general development, as when they started speaking regularly, they were fluent in multiple languages. Some of them were occasionally confused when a person whom they’ve pegged for a particular language would suddenly start speaking to them in a different language. The confusion was transient, but the response was always in the originally determined language, not in the newly introduced one (the second language was one of the languages that the respective children were familiar with). This was an opportunistic, not a proper experiment, so I would not put too much stock in the conclusions, but if my observations may be taken seriously, this would suggest some interesting possibilities for research on bilingualism with some possible insight into cognitive development in general.

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    A nice Johnson column on the Economist blog, “Bringing up baby bilingual” of 10/29/13.

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