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Story background

The government has chosen to use a constructed language as a part of the process of building national identity. They don't want to use a foreign language. They also don't want to use local dialects because they are quite similar with the languages of the neighboring countries.

The time setting is decolonization after 1945. Most of the citizens are illiterate. Those few that could read & write use the language of the former colonial masters.

Question

The government of a former colony, which recently gained its independence, decided to replace local dialects with a constructed language as the official language. The new language doesn't have any similarity with any local dialect nor with any other language in the world.

How should a country introduce a constructed language as the official language?

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    $\begingroup$ I am fairly certain that Chairman Mao tried to introduce Mandarin Chinese as the main language of China, during the revolution. There were many dialects and languages and in teaching only Mandarin to students, Mao sought to make the country united. He did not manage it completely, as I recall. I suggest you research that as a possibility. It wasn't a new language, but it certainly caused problems. $\endgroup$ – WRX Dec 8 '16 at 19:48
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    $\begingroup$ Related question: Forcing everyone to speak the same language $\endgroup$ – Philipp Dec 8 '16 at 23:11
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    $\begingroup$ Look at how USA tried and mostly failed to wipe out native languages. How England nearly succeeded in wiping out Irish. How Ataturk managed to make Turkish change fast enough that kids had trouble communicating with their grandparents. Then there's a novel called The_Languages_of_Pao $\endgroup$ – WGroleau Dec 9 '16 at 7:00
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    $\begingroup$ Standard written language has been (re)constructed in many countries, e.g. Norway and Germany. Look at the processes they used to ensure adoption. (In Germany, NDR was enforced bottom up: they just started teaching the new rules in schools and regulated official uses.) $\endgroup$ – Raphael Dec 9 '16 at 8:07
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    $\begingroup$ This has already happened in Greece in the middle 60s. After a coup the country was ruled by the army, and one of the things that changed was the official language. The language was previously constructed by scholars and it was like a mash of modern and ancient greek with extra grammatical rules and punctuation marks. I know people that were taught this language in schools but spoke modern greek in the streets. $\endgroup$ – Loupax Dec 9 '16 at 10:19

13 Answers 13

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With patience

They would have to know in advance that the process would take at least a generation. As people grow older it becomes harder for them to learn a new language and be proficient in it. So it's better to teach the kids, and to do that you need to give them the tools, and the motivation.

tools: this is the easy part. The education system's whole purpose is to pass on knowledge that fits the government's whims, so use it to teach them the new language.

motivation: of course, you want the kids to speak the language fluently, not just enough to get a good grade. So they need a reason to want to learn, or for their parents to push them to learn. Examples include:

  • all university studies are in the new language
  • all government services are in the new language
  • entertainment like TV, movies etc are in the new language

Real life examples:

As mentioned, when Israel was founded the Hebrew language didn't even exist as it is today, and now it's the official language. Many immigrants don't speak it very well (almost all the population are immigrants or 2-3 generation in the country) but their children all do.

The Italian language was also introduced in an attempt to unite all the various cultures under one language, which obviously was a success

Another example from Israel: when you speak to people (mostly girls) at the ages 25-30 they have a really good knowledge of Spanish. The sole reason being a series of Spanish soap operas that were the best thing to watch for kids in the 90s.

What about illiterates?

You mentioned that the population is mostly illiterate. The thing about this is, if you don't have education it's really hard to pass on knowledge. Some system needs to be in place in order to teach kids the language.

If your determined to teach the language and keep the population illiterate, my best suggestion is an army of nannies that speak the language and provide free (perhaps even mandatory) child-care. There's no better way to learn than to have someone speak to you when you're a kid. Then, you also need to keep some motivation for the kids to keep practicing the new language, as mentioned above. The fact that every kids speaks a language that none of the parent do might act in your favor actually.

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  • $\begingroup$ In addition, if the people are illiterate they will have much less reason to learn the official language. $\endgroup$ – EvilSnack Sep 21 '18 at 2:46
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Languages take immense effort to learn, and people will only learn them if it's socially or economically inescapable. Zompist

Choose a combination of stick and carrot depending of how powerfull the government is and how dirty they wanna play:

  1. Train and license teachers that will strictly teach in the conlang.

  2. Open schools that will educate students in the conlang.

  3. Make knowing conlang obligatory for anyone who wants government job. Most of the people are risk averse and steady government paycheck is the only ticket to middle class.

  4. Make all official documents & legal contracts only in the conlang.

  5. Organize campaign of eradication of illiteracy, see Likbez . Where illiterate means can't use the conlang.

  6. All schools must use the conlang as language of instruction. Ban those who won't.

  7. Propagate the glory of the official language.

  8. Make all the print (newspapers, books) conlang only.

  9. Make all radio & tv programs conlang only.

  10. Invest in conlang literature (prose, poetry, dramas).

  11. Invest in conlang music, radio dramas, movies.

  12. Mock all those who refuse to learn the conlang as backward, stupid or enemy of the state. See supression of French regional dialects as an example

If you prefer to use national pride take a look at Revival of the Hebrew language its not a conlang, but its the only language that was brought from sacred language to a spoken and written language used for daily life.

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    $\begingroup$ Great answer. The only problem I see here is the banning the education of foreign languages. That will result in a populace that can't trade with its neighbors. $\endgroup$ – Tim Dec 8 '16 at 20:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Tim, for a repressive government making international trade difficult is a feature not a bug. $\endgroup$ – Lostinfrance Dec 8 '16 at 20:58
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    $\begingroup$ If the government is repressive, I would add to point (9) "Jam all foreign radio and TV broadcasts". $\endgroup$ – Lostinfrance Dec 8 '16 at 21:01
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    $\begingroup$ This social engineering is currently in the educative system of Catalonia (Spain). 1) teachers must have a degree in catalán, 2) schools teach in catalán (a couple hours a week spanish) 3) catalán is obligatory for any civil servant 4) official documents are in catalán only, you should beg for a translation 5) huge campaings promoting it 6) ALL public schools in catalán 8) All public newspapers are in catalán, and huge subsidies for books 9) All public TV & radio stations catalán only 10) and 11) huge subsidies for cultural activities in catalán only 12) spanish speakers are considered enemies $\endgroup$ – roetnig Dec 9 '16 at 12:50
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    $\begingroup$ @roetnig the difference is: Catalonia is trying to preserve its historical language against a foreign language, Spanish. Catalonians quite wisely don't want to end up like their French regional counterparts who lost most of their their linguistic heritage, or so many languages in America and elsewhere which are disappearing from governmental pressure in favor of English/Spanish/whatever. $\endgroup$ – Shautieh Dec 10 '16 at 3:13
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When we speak of constructed languages we tend to think of languages invented ex nihilo, such as Esperanto or Volapük; such languages have never taken roots solid enough to make them serious candidates for the role of the official language of a reasonably large political structure. (Esperanto, the most successful wholly invented language, was at a certain point proposed as the official language of Neutral Moresnet (1816–1920), a tiny tiny neutral territory wedged between Belgium and Germany. It was also somewhat favored by certain left-wing political movements in the first half of the 20th century.)

There is however another class of constructed languages, namely those built on the basis of a natural language. Such half-natural half-artificial languages have certain advantages compared to those which are fully artificial: they come with a ready-made cultural tradition, and with an obvious target population of potential speakers. Two of those languages, Modern Hebrew and Purified Greek, actually became the official languages of Israel and Greece; in Israel, Modern Hebrew took root, endured and flourished; in Greece, Purified Greek fought bravely but eventually lost in favor of its natural rival, Modern Greek.

  • An example of success: Modern Hebrew. At the beginning of the 19th century Hebrew had been a dead language for two millenia, plus or minus a few centuries. (Some scholars think that Hebrew was already dead in the time of Alexander the Great, others say that it may have still survived in some communities until the 2nd century CE.) In the second half of the 19th century a movement to revive Hebrew arose among some Jewish scholars and ideologists, spearheaded by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. The task was ample; nobody had spoken Hebrew in real life since the Antiquity; the language lacked words for modern concepts and objects; and there was no commonly agreed pronounciation. The movement had a very slow start, but eventually it gained the support of educators, and when Israel proclaimed its independence the newly revived language was the obvious choice as the official language of the new country. (It was the obvious choice for the people who led the independence movement; the practical choice would have been Yiddish, but Yiddish was considered ideologically inappropriate.)

    Modern Hebrew has a simpler phonology than Biblical Hebrew, simpler morphology, and somewhat different syntax. It includes a large number of loan-words from European languages, to make up for the gap between the Antiquity and the modern world. While most linguists classify Modern Hebrew as a purely Semitic language, there is a significant minority who view it as "genealogically a hybrid with Indo-European" (from Wikipedia) -- but they can't agree with what specific Indo-European family; some say that the decisive influence came for Germanic Yiddish; others see obvious Slavic traits. What is clear is that Modern Hebrew is a new language, created by the collective efforts of scholars, writers and educators between the second half of the 19th century and the middle of the 20th. And it has successfully been adopted as their official and everyday language by an entire nation.

  • Another half-successful example is Nynorsk (New Norwegian), constructed towards the middle of the 19th century by Ivar Aasen and intended to represent a true form of Norwegian, free from Danish influence. Today the language is co-official in Norway alongside Bokmål, the Danish-like language used by 85% of the population.

  • An example of failure: Purified Greek (Katharevousa). Conceived around 1800 by Adamantios Korais, Katharevousa was intended to bridge the gap between wild exuberance of Modern Greek or Demotic (which, at the time, was uncodified, split into several different dialects, and essentially unwritten) and the deadly stuffiness of the Byzantine form of Ancient Greek which was the only acceptable written form of Greek. The name of the language means "Purifying"; it was built to reflect what its developer considered to be the course of evolution from Ancient in the absence of external influences. As a half-way language, Katharevousa had simpler grammar than Ancient, and its phonetics was mostly similar with Modern Greek. When Greece achieved independence in 1830, Katharevousa became the official language of the kingdom.

    The acceptance of Katharevousa was far from universal; tellingly, it never gained the favor of writers. While all children were supposed to learn it in school, few people used it as their everyday language. The Greek language question remained unresolved for one century and a half, until in 1976 the Greek government capitulated and accepted defeat, and, in an article of Law Number 309 (written in Katharevousa, ironically) declared Demotic to be the official language of the country. Today Katharevousa survives as the language used by the Church of Greece in public communications. (The liturgical language is still Koine Greek, the form of Ancient Greek spoken in the days of the Roman Empire.)

What can be seen from those examples is that ideology matters, and gaining the favor of educators and writers is crucial. It is essential to gain a foothold in schools and to grow a generation of native speakers; equally important is to gain mind-share among the target population and to position the new language as an essential attribute of national identity.

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    $\begingroup$ Hebrew is something of an oddball, since it's not a case of a country adopting a new(ly reconstructed) language, but of the language adopting a newly constructed country. If Israel hadn't been settled by refugees from all over Europe & North Africa, who spoke a multitude of native tongues and thus needed a common language, could it have been forced on the country? For something similar, consider the way English was adopted as the lingua franca of newly-constructed India. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Dec 9 '16 at 4:59
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf but this is similar to the scenareo in the Question of a ewly constructed country. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Dec 9 '16 at 6:47
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    $\begingroup$ I am a bit of a fan of Esperanto so this is a biased comment, but was it really ex nihilo in the same way that Klingon was? It's basically romance-language word roots (libro -> book, see also 'library' in English) and word ending patterns from Italian, and some made up patterns. Seems more half-natural half-invented mongrel to me. ("have never taken roots solid enough to make them serious candidates", the game's not over ;) $\endgroup$ – TessellatingHeckler Dec 9 '16 at 7:35
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    $\begingroup$ You say that Hebrew “was the obvious choice as the official language of the new country.” But from what I’ve read it was really anything but: Yiddish was the obvious choice, since that’s what actual Jews (well, those in North America and Europe, at least) spoke fluently. Virtually nobody spoke Hebrew. The fact that Hebrew rather than Yiddish got adopted as the language of Israel required tremendous work, which makes its adoption all the more remarkable, and makes it an even better example for the purpose of this question. $\endgroup$ – Konrad Rudolph Dec 9 '16 at 12:04
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    $\begingroup$ @KonradRudolph: It was the obvious choice for the people who led the independence movement. Ideology matters. It is true that just about everybody had Yiddish as a common language; but Yiddish was ideologically inappropriate -- too much like German, it was considered an alienating "jargon". $\endgroup$ – AlexP Dec 9 '16 at 12:10
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Make them want it

You need some heavy propaganda to make people believe that learning is beneficial for them. No similarities means five to eight years to fluency [citation needed] . They must have really strong feeling this is good and that this time would pay for itself in future.

Make them hate old languages

If you don't, they will stick to them, and "official language" will be only a legal fiction,or a tool for lawyers.

Make your new language easy, precise, rich and capable of beauty

This one is mostly self - contradictory and impossible, but at the same time you have to do it. Easy to introduce it in few generations. Precise because you need people with different language backgrounds to understand each other well. Rich and capable of beauty because if it isn't, people will fall back to other languages.

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  • $\begingroup$ All the constructed languages start poor. The richness comes later, if there are people who need to communicate with it. $\endgroup$ – slobodan.blazeski Dec 8 '16 at 21:19
  • $\begingroup$ @slobodan.blazeski I said it's not quite possible, didn't I? But the problem is, if you want to force it on a whole population that does have an usable and established alternative, you can't sell a poor product. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Dec 8 '16 at 22:17
  • $\begingroup$ You must start with minimal viable product (sorry for my start-up ish) . Start with few thousands words (average person vocabulary is 5000 words) and rules for making more and soon the language will grow as need arises. But there is no way for your language to be rich from start. highered.mheducation.com/sites/0073123587/student_view0/… $\endgroup$ – slobodan.blazeski Dec 8 '16 at 22:24
  • $\begingroup$ @slobodan.blazeski and I already wrote that this requirement is impossible. What are you arguing? $\endgroup$ – Mołot Dec 8 '16 at 22:32
  • $\begingroup$ I would suggest dropping rich, and instead replace it with minimal viable vocabulary with rules for expansion. That makes the introduction process possible. Constructed languages could be made easy & precise since they have less ambiguities then natural languages who acquire quirks through history. If you are interested take a look at David Peterson channel goo.gl/YJTpgt & his book Art of Language Invention amzn.to/2gg4VJe he's the author of constructed languages in game of thrones, thor & defiance. I like the rest of your answer. $\endgroup$ – slobodan.blazeski Dec 8 '16 at 23:00
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Mustafa Kemal Atatürk implemented a sweeping reform to the Turkish language in the 1930's, including large vocabulary changes as well as a switch from the Arabic alphabet to the Roman alphabet. The change was largely implemented via the public school systems. This answer is based on my answer on History.SE covering this.

I made an argument in my History.SE answer that this change could be considered a switch to a new language, and if it was a new language it could certainly be considered a conlang as it was purpose-built by the government.

A society that is mostly illiterate is less likely to want to keep an old writing system alive since the average citizen will have no significant investment in it, and many illiterate citizens would jump at the chance to learn to read and write at all, not caring what script.

In your world, be sure to fund the public schools well enough to ensure that there is an adequate Adult Education department to teach the alphabet to all the illiterate adults, and that you don't allow too many illiterate children to graduate high school by cheating!

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    $\begingroup$ I like that you mention that working with illiterate adults will actually facilitate the process since they are starting from scratch anyway. $\endgroup$ – Mad Physicist Dec 9 '16 at 21:24
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The History of Esperanto would be a good read for you. It was proposed as the official language of Neutral Moresnet, and if not for WWI, it likely would have taken hold.

Using that as a real world example, your government should cast suspicion on anyone using a local dialect. Spread some propaganda that anyone speaking XYZ could be a spy from XYZonia. All TRUE ABCians only speak the new ABC language.

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    $\begingroup$ A little unfair to the Esperantists, who repudiated the use of force to spread their conlang and were on the receiving end of suspicion and hostile propaganda from several dictatorial regimes. $\endgroup$ – Lostinfrance Dec 8 '16 at 20:55
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, life was unfair to many people who didn't speak an oppressive country's language, including those who spoke Esperanto. Even the US used Esperanto as the language of enemy forces in war games...a very subtle form of propaganda that Esperanto speakers were not your friend. $\endgroup$ – Tim Dec 8 '16 at 21:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Tim if a non-conlang was used, wouldn't that also be a form of propaganda? $\endgroup$ – Andrew Grimm Dec 9 '16 at 12:42
  • $\begingroup$ @AndrewGrimm Sure. When you apply a label to an enemy it carries connotations of 'enemy' to others get that same label. Richard Crossman said "The way to carry out good propaganda is never to appear to be carrying it out at all." Or as John Pike puts it, "Anybody who knows about propaganda knows the first rule of propaganda is that it should not look like propaganda." For example: Slavic people. $\endgroup$ – Tim Dec 9 '16 at 15:40
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    $\begingroup$ @AndrewGrimm They can use what ever they want. I'm not criticizing. Just pointing out subtle forms of propaganda. $\endgroup$ – Tim Dec 10 '16 at 2:00
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Beside teaching and broadcasting in the new language, it's important that new words are firstly invented in the new language. But it would be difficult for government officials to do that themselves.

It would be easier if the country originally consisted of many small tribes that have used significantly different languages.

If not, another slightly extreme approach is to dictate the original language. You may create so many taboos on using the original language that makes most "creative" uses, such as borrowing new words, naming new things, or even humors impossible. But you leave the language usable enough that most people could survive with it in everyday life, so they are less likely to risk breaking the law. Finally young people would find the workaround by just using the new language, if it is taught anyway.

That might seem quite bad. But it's not something so easy to begin with.

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If you take a broad view of the question, you might include Newspeak, the language being forced on the denizens of Oceania in 1984.

Of course, 1984 is fiction, and Newspeak is an adaptation of English rather than a new language. But it does have a couple of points that are worth considering.

First, it's promoted in the furtherance of a specific ideology. And second, it's designed to limit communication instead of broadening it.

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Biopower.

Foucault's idea: the norms of behavior are better enforced than any law, because everyone knows how one is supposed to act, and enforces it.

My understanding (from a class in 1995) is that English before Elizabeth I (and Shakespeare) was very different. She worked to be a champion of the arts that glorified her government. She benefitted from being lucky in war, and for coming after a period of civil strife.

Ways changed, because people wanted to get away from the bad old days. Shakespeare's fame is a side-effect of Elizabeth's success.

Atatürk and Mao also succeeded, and they also had personality cults. Mao used modern propaganda, but his rule was unpleasant, so his changes were inconclusive. The Greek reform failed: no sun king, no buy-in from the artists.

So: civil war, resolved by a god-king, who rules for long happy decades, and controls all the good writers.

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Brigham Young created a phonetic alphabet for all the Mormon immigrants moving to the Utah area so all of the immigrants could learn English more easily. This was done using a university and local schools. It may be worth researching his efforts. Here is the Wikipedia article. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deseret_alphabet

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to worldbuilding. Could you develop your response to provide a full answer to the question? $\endgroup$ – James K Dec 11 '16 at 18:58
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I think SapirWorf should look up the Indonesian Language. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indonesian_language It is constructed from an existing lingua franca, but mostly seems to qualify for what he is looking for.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hello, Jim Baerg! This is an interesting answer but unfortunately does not contain all elements necessary to answer the question within the text of the answer. Please summarise the contents of the link, rather than just linking to a different website. Thank-you! $\endgroup$ – Gryphon - Reinstate Monica Sep 20 '18 at 0:50
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Belief in Sapir-Whorfianism

In the country in question, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is held in great esteem and popular. So, the conlang to be introduced is designed with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in mind and shall express the culture and the values of the new country in a specific way.

The people want the language, because it is marketed to them as the expression of themselves while all other languages have shortcomings in this respect. They will also have the feeling of self-improvement by acquiring the new language.

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Your biggest enemy here is spoken language. Your people might be mostly illiterate, but they still can speak languages.

Have all the kids between 2-5 to government facilities where they will be exposed only to conlang. The caretakers in the facilities are loyal government agents, thus the kids has no way to learn language other than conlang. Release them...ahem...I mean they can graduate after they are 18 or so.

For the masses, introduce this as a government program to ensure that every child has equal access to nutritional food, and education. The reason why the government have to do this is because they have to catch up with the other nations fast or else they risk being colonialized again. Those who still against it, well...eliminate them silently.

As for those above 5 (which means they most probably has been exposed to other languages enough), re-educate them by conditioning things so that like it or not they must use conlang.

  1. All stores must use conlang. Those who don't will have their shop fined. Repeat offender will have their shop closed down. To enforce this, regularly do inspection on random shop. Disguise the agent as customer.

  2. All literature accessible to the masses, including even a piece of flyer, must be in conlang. Using language other than conlang is deemed serious crime. Those who created and/or distributed the said literature can be jailed for several years. Since only a few people in your country are literate, you can apply this immediately without risking riot. If those few got angry with this, let's make it that they have unfortunate incidents.

  3. Promote conlang by gradually change broadcasts (TV and radio) to use conlang. Adversite it like a cigarette. Conlang is cool those who don't use it are lame-o. Gradually change this into those who don't use it are enemy of the state, spies from another countries.

  4. Have schools teach conlang. It is accessible by people of all age. Make it so that for the first 5 years of its inception this schools are free. Since everything is now in conlang, this will accelerate the change (well people love free stuffs).

  5. Under the pretense of rezoning, have the older generation move to the more remote part of the country. Once they are all gone your whole country would use conlang since you have the younger generation grows in it.

  6. Have the kidnapped...ahem...government cared kids send letter to their families in conlang. Now for the sake of hearing from them the family would have to study conlang. All letters should be screened. Those that includes language other than conlang will not be delivered.

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    $\begingroup$ No country could survive kidnapping all the children 2-5, the parents will fight you to the death for their children. $\endgroup$ – Just Larry Dec 9 '16 at 1:52
  • $\begingroup$ I said introduce this as a government program to ensure equal access to education and nutritional food. Not just silent kidnapping. Besides they still get to send letter to them. $\endgroup$ – 絢瀬絵里 Dec 9 '16 at 1:57
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    $\begingroup$ If your plan is some kind of free day care when children spend some time with their teachers who only speak conlang , please rephrase your answer. Unless the parents are literally starving and couldn't feed their children they would never send them or allow 2-5 year old to be in some kind of faraway program. Boarding school might work for part of the older children +7 years old, but keep in mind that in those years most of the population worked in the agriculture and children were source of labor. So even if its free they won't send all of them. Maybe 1 or 2 of their brightest boys. $\endgroup$ – Just Larry Dec 9 '16 at 2:34

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