Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Stephen Fry's Planet Word

Earlier this year I traveled to Washington, DC to attend a presentation by the Washington Shakespeare Company (now known as WSC Avant Bard) of Hamlet in Klingon (the final scene, the duel between Hamlet and Laertes).  This was a second run, being put on at the request of the BBC, so they could film it as part of Stephen Fry's upcoming specials on language, Planet Word.  Stephen was in attendance, and I had the opportunity to speak with him about teaching my son Klingon.

The bit about Klingon starts around the 8:50 mark:

Predictably, many people see this and jump to the worst possible conclusions without taking a half a minute to think to themselves "does that make sense?" or "is this the whole story?"  Much of the reaction is the same as when this story "broke" in 2009.  The Minnesota Daily ran a story about Ultralingua's new Klingon dictionary app for the iPhone (which I contributed to), and in that story talked about me speaking Klingon to my son.  They did a nice job in this article, focusing mainly on the point of the story, Ultralingua and their new product.  They interviewed me for the article, and took care to get their facts right.  That was a Tuesday.   The next day another "reporter" picked up the part of the story that was about me, and posted something online that emphasized the outlandish implicature, without bothering to check his facts or worry about, you know, accurate reporting.  This was a grossly irresponsible bit of hackery, and I refuse to link to it.

The following day was "the Internet hates d'Armond" day.  The story was picked up by Gizmodo; I was on reddit, the front page of Digg and the Huffington Post.  The post was linked to from dozens, maybe hundreds of blogs, all of them filled with comments about what a terrible parent I am, how I was destroying my child's life, how I should be arrested, castrated or both; about how horrible our family life must be; how messed up my child must be; and so on.  My inbox filled up with hate mail.  That night, I was the butt of jokes on both David Letterman and Conan O'Brien.  (Both were mean-spirited, but Letterman's joke was funny; Conan's joke was just mean.)   I spent some time trying to correct all of the misinformation that was out there, and the blogger at Gizmodo was kind enough to update her story to include some balance.  After a few weeks the attention dissipated, and life returned to normal.

Now, this effect is starting to surface again, because of the piece that aired on Stephen Fry's Planet Word.  It aired in the UK this past Sunday, on BBC2.  Stephen was intelligent, good humored and genuinely interested in the story.  All of the folks at Planet Word have been terrific, and it's been a joy interacting with them on this project.  I think they did a great job with the interview, and I'm very pleased with how well it turned out.  However, I'm seeing so much of the same outrage and misconception that I saw before.  The Internet is a funny thing: when everyone has an opportunity to speak their mind, so much shoddy thinking gets out there completely unfiltered, and it's ugly.  If I concentrate really really hard, I can not care about what some idiot writes about me on the Internet.  But it's difficult.

So, let's set some of the record straight, for anyone who has read this far.  First, the simple facts: My son was born in 1994, while I was in graduate school studying linguistics and learning Klingon.  He was raised speaking English, but in addition, I spoke to him in Klingon.  I wanted to see if he would acquire the constructed language as a first language, and if so, what a human language learner would do with this constructed, alien language.  It was going well for a couple of years, but as he was approaching the age of three he started to resist, so I stopped.  It was far more challenging that I thought it would be, partly because we lacked so much vocabulary that I needed on a daily basis, and partly because I was the only person in his linguistic environment speaking Klingon.

He was not deprived of English; English was his first language.  I did not raise him with some notion of Klingon culture, wielding Klingon swords and eating raw worms.  I never dressed him in a Klingon uniform, gave him a prosthetic forehead, or paraded him in front of fans at conventions.  It was something fun that he and I shared at home, and when it stopped being fun, we stopped doing it.  This was around 15 years ago, from 1994-97.  My son is now a senior in high school, and he has no memory of the experience (though we've talked about it all of his life, so he's heard all the stories).  He does not now speak Klingon.  He's a great kid, and we're a happy family.  Except occasionally when the Internet explodes in hatred towards what I did.

This wasn't some bizarre experiment where I deprived my son of English and shipped him off to a Klingon boarding school (or bird of prey).  It was fun, for both of us.  We played games with the language, sang songs, made fun of the bumpy foreheads.  There was nothing cruel (though I'll admit it was unusual).  Many kids are raised to acquire constructed languages as their first language, and there's nothing wrong with this.  If my attempt had worked out, he would be bilingual in English and Klingon.  But it didn't.  When he showed signs of resistance, I stopped.  Many people say things like, he realized what a terrible father I was or what a horrible language it was, or some other variation of ignorant sputum.  But this outcome, as it turns out, was entirely predictable, because it's very common with children being raised in bilingual environments.  It was obvious that I spoke English, because I spoke it with everyone else.  But when I spoke with him, I spoke Klingon.  Since there was very little reason for him to expend the extra energy to learn Klingon (since he could speak with me in English), there was no motivation for him to continue, and he quit.  And, the thing that most people fail to notice is, I let him quit.  My son's happiness and well-being were more important to me than the experience of raising him to speak Klingon.  I never forced it.

I don't think this one blog post will put the story to rest, but hopefully it will in some small way counter the misinformation that's out there, and help to calm some of the more indignant netizens who assume I was making toddler-sized battle swords and planning to surgically alter my son's forehead.  But I doubt it.


  1. I never dressed him in a Klingon uniform, gave him a prosthetic forehead, or paraded him in front of fans at conventions.

    Not that it would have caused any harm if you have - at least if Klingon translator Michael Roney Jr.'s daughter is any indication.

  2. I think your experiment was fascinating and in no way harmed your son. I would do the same thing myself! You've shown up some remarkable facts about human language - that kids aren't just language sponges and actively choose where to put effort into acquisition. Thanks for putting this is public and sharing your experience, the world is richer for it.

    Ignore the haters, I expect they barely know how to speak their first language - let alone a second!

  3. As d'Armond's wife...and mother of his child...and non-speaker of Klingon...I can say our son enjoyed speaking Klingon with his father. He knew that Mommy spoke English and only tried once to speak Klingon to me. While counting the stairs we were walking down, he started to count in Klingon. He then stopped, looked at me and said, "No-4, 5, 6!" Our son is now a wonderful, kind, funny kid and has not been harmed by his language games with his father. In fact, his friends think it's cool when he can recite Hamlet's soliloquy in both English AND Klingon-and yes, he still remembers the song he used to sing.

  4. Thanks for the clarification, that was useful and I'm glad I read this post. As a viewer of Planet Word last week, we didn't get the message clearly enough that your son's first language was actually English, but that you spoke Klingon to him in addition - I think we heard the words 'Klingon as a first language' and assumed it took precedence over English. Maybe we weren't listening properly. I'm sorry to hear about the negative communications you've had again as a result and wish you all the best for the future.

  5. And what if it had taken precedence over English?
    As if speaking Klingon was the worst thing you can do to a child...

    I believe in you as a father more than those idiots who can't speak any other language than English and who raise their kids the traditional, conservative British way, and I was delighted to hear that you taught your kid Klingon :-)