Constructed languages, or “conlangs” for short, are fictional languages invented by human beings, as opposed to “natural languages,” those that develop naturally over time. Some famous conlangs include Klingon, Na’vi, the various Elvish languages invented by J.R.R. Tolkien, and, most recently, Dothraki. (This video by linguist John McWhorter helps explain conlangs in more detail.) So, if these languages are invented and not really used in real life, why on earth should you spend time learning a conlang? Let’s take a look at some potential benefits.
Pronunciation: Even if a language is invented, its sounds are real and often exist in other languages.
One of the hardest things to get right in a language is its pronunciation. Dothraki borrows its “q” sound from Arabic and its dental consonants from Spanish. Learning and practicing these sounds will benefit you in learning either language.
Dedication: It’s easier to learn a language you really, really want to learn.
Being forced to learn a language in school probably made you less of a great language learner, but if you are really interested in what you’re learning, like, say, if you’re trying to learn Russian so you can read War and Peace in the original, or if you’re trying to learn Spanish to impress your girlfriend’s family, you’re more likely to keep practicing it. There is no shame if that impetus to keep learning is a television series: if it’s what makes you get really into learning a language, you’ll be that much more dedicated, and being dedicated and diligent is the most important aspect of teaching yourself any language. Also, once you have one language under your belt (conlang or natural), the rest become easier and easier to pick up, at least at a basic level (see the next point).
Understanding Grammar: Learning noun declensions, verb conjugations, and other structures in a conlang will help you learn them in any language.
One of the hardest parts of language learning can be understanding how the grammar rules work, especially those that are different from the rules in your own language. Dothraki marks case, meaning the endings of nouns change depending on their role in the sentence (subject, object, directional function). This happens with German nouns too, and in other languages such as Russian, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, Finnish, Estonian, Latvian, and Tamil. Once you’re used to how case markers are used in one language, they become easier to understand and sometimes even anticipate in other languages. Same with verb conjugations: when you get used to the patterns in one language, it helps you interpret them in others.
Thinking In A New Language: Training your brain to start to think in another language will make it easier in any language.
As you’re starting to learn more vocabulary and phrases in a conlang like Dothraki, you’ll discover that you start thinking not just in terms of translation, but picturing the object or idea and finding yourself armed with multiple ways of saying it. Bilingual brains are more receptive to this type of thinking, and in fact, linguistic studies have shown that knowing two languages facilitates learning a third. As with any language, learning a conlang will make you more receptive to thinking in a new language.
Learning To Build New Words: Understanding how languages build new words will give you the skills to understand new words in any language.
Learning vocabulary in any language often involves building new words from existing words, through compounding or adding affixes, for example. Think of some of the new words we can build from a word like “light” in English: enlightened, lighter, lighthouse, and you can glean the meaning of these words based on knowing the meaning of the root. This happens in any language: Russian and Tagalog, for example, use verb bases and expand upon them with prefixes, suffixes, and even infixes; Chinese uses roots in its writing system. When you study a conlang such as Dothraki, it’s easy to focus on the roots of words, and see patterns for how they form into different parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives. Looking at a language in these terms, no matter the language you are learning, helps you see these patterns in other languages.
“Fake” is Real: It doesn’t matter if it was invented in a year or developed naturally over many years, it’s still a language.
Dothraki and most of the other well-known conlangs are created by linguists who understand how languages develop, and every element of them is just as real as any language widely and naturally spoken. The linguists imagine the factors that might have influenced their development, and take this into account when creating them, so their structures are formed in a way they could have formed in the world in which they are spoken, if that world were real. Think of them as the diseases created by scientists in petri dishes in laboratories: they are produced using similar influences as they would form in nature, just in artificially sped up environments. But in this sense, they can tell us a lot about how languages work.
Another important point to consider, says David J. Peterson, the developer of Dothraki, is why people call conlangs “fake” to begin with.
“It’s not fake,” says Peterson. “It’s sitting right there. But why does it feel fake, nonetheless? With a conlang, the context is fictional—that’s the part that’s fake. Outside that, though, the language itself is simply a system that can be used for communication, like any other language. Using a conlang is roughly like using a dead language: The actual environment that existed when the Latin language flourished is gone, meaning the context is no longer “real”. The language system remains, though, and we’re free to use it as we wish.
“Many still look at language as a tool—a necessity we fall back on. One learns a second language because one HAS to, for some reason. Many of us who create languages see it differently. We love language, and learning other languages is fun. In that regard, a created language is no different. Just as one should never shame someone for learning Japanese even if they have no intention of ever visiting Japan, so should one never shame one for learning a conlang. There are a LOT of people who start to learn Japanese specifically because they’re fans of a particular anime and want to understand it better. How is that different from learning Dothraki to appreciate Game of Thrones better?”
So next time someone tells you that instead of learning Dothraki you should be learning a “real” language, feel free to come back at them with any of these points. And to check out some languages you can learn when you’re done with Dothraki, see our other language offerings here. By the time you’ve mastered Dothraki, these should be a piece of cake.
(You can also learn a lot more about conlangs at the Language Creation Society.)