Why learn a language with no native speakers?


A crash course in Klingon proved a hit at the Adelaide Language Festival.

Navi, Elvish, Klingon. For some, these words need little introduction. They’re the names of made-up or ‘engineered’ languages created in popular culture.  

Those who have seen James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar might recognise Navi as the native language of its fictional blue creatures, while Elvish would be familiar to Lord of the Rings fans. 

But for linguist Stuart Blair, the language of choice is Klingon. The strange, abrupt tongue is spoken by extraterrestrials of the same name in US science fiction franchise Star Trek. 

Klingon is not an easy language to speak, nor are there any native speakers. Despite this, Mr Blair’s lesson on it was a hit with participants at the Adelaide Language Festival on Wednesday.

Participants at the festival - which was hosted by The University of Adelaide - were invited to take crash courses in 30 different languages.

"tlhIngan Hol Dajatlh'a'?" Mr Blair snarled as his lesson began.          

“tlhIngan maH!” the class croaked back. 

Mr Stuart says you can learn a lot about the fictional society from the words they choose to use. 

“You can see here, subject-verb-object, there is no politeness [to Klingon],” he told SBS News. 

An introduction to Klingon.
An introduction to Klingon.

“They simply want to know what they want, when they want it and how they’re going to get it. 

“Generally, the way they get it is, they take it. So that’s how the society is.” 

So what’s the point of learning a language with no native speakers?

Mr Blair says it’s to do with brain fitness. 

“It doesn’t matter what language you learn, they’re all going to give you that enhanced analytical ability,” he said. 

“Learning a language is increased brain nutrition, especially in your older years.” 

Ghil’ad Zuckermann, professor in endangered languages at the University of Adelaide, created the festival in the hope of inspiring others to find passion in language. 

If learning a language could be compared to an animal, he says it would be a German shepherd.

“It's not easy. It's highly intelligent, it's playful but it requires a lot of attention, it requires your passion. The moment you train the German shepherd, it’s actually very wonderful."

Mr Zuckermann speaks 13 German shepherds (or languages) fluently. He is able to read another 17. 

He believes there are seven characteristics of learning a new language successfully: mathematical ability, musicality, memory, emotional intelligence, motivation and a high IQ. The seventh is to have no shame. 

“If you feel you do not want to lose face, then it's harder to learn a language because you might be afraid of making a mistake.” 

About 500 participants took part in the festival, which fittingly began with a mass lesson in Kaurna; the language of the first peoples of Adelaide. 

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch