With language seeming to be the biggest barrier to a globalised society, Robert Nielsen explores a growing community of self-taught speakers who want a single language for every country
The world is divided into thousands of different languages, each with its own culture and background. Anyone who has travelled abroad will be able to identify that awkward moment of trying (and usually failing) to breach the language barrier with a local.
No doubt, we have all considered how much easier it would be if a single language existed, that we could all speak together. But national pride has a tendency to get in the way; we are reluctant to learn more than a few tourist-appropriate phrases in another language.
A neutral language, without a past of colonialism or a specific national background, is needed. As you may have though, this isn’t a recent thought, but few know that such a neutral language has existed for many years: Esperanto.
Esperanto is essentially a combination of the main languages of Europe into a new neutral language that anyone can speak without surrendering their national pride. Its similarities to European languages make it relatively easy to learn, and it is similar to a Romance language, but with greater use of the letters K and J.
Unlike other languages, it was invented by a single person who created all words and grammar, meaning there are not multiple interpretations of the language in circulation. As it is not tied to one place or culture, it does not carry the baggage of other languages, which are historically linked to a country’s army.
Esperanto is not designed to replace a country’s native language, but rather to complement it. It aims to be the world’s second language. Esperanto has many self-taught speakers, who rave about its advantages. One such speaker is Alex Escomu, from Madrid. He believes: “[Esperanto has] no nation. It is more neutral than national languages. So its easiest to learn.”
Esperanto was created in 1887 by L.L. Zamenhof, who lived in Bialystok, formerly part of the Russian Empire. His town was rife with ethnic tension, as it contained a mixture of Russians, Poles, Jews and Germans, all of whom had their own language.
Zamenhof believed the main reason for this division was the inability of each group to communicate with others. He felt that if they could speak to each other, they would be able to understand the others point of view, and would not resort so easily to violence.
His solution was to create a neutral language that all could speak equally without losing their own heritage or compromising their national pride. The idea of a universal language soon spread across Europe. People saw it as a great way to unite the world and it became hugely linked with pacifism, especially after the carnage of the First World War.
Unfortunately, not everyone liked this spirit of internationalism. Nationalists believed Esperanto would weaken their national language and Esperantists were often suspected of being spies during the Second World War. Hitler went as far as to make the language illegal during the Nazi-era and persecuted Esperantists.
Stalin, too, disliked the idea of his citizens easily communicating with the outside world and the Soviet Union also banned Esperanto and clamped down on speakers. Esperanto suffered serious blows, but survived, and today it stands stronger than ever.
The internet offered Esperanto a major and unexpected boost. Communication with the entire world was made possible by improvements in internet technology, and Esperantists all over the world began to unite. It no longer mattered if you were the only Esperanto speaker in your town, as you could find fellow enthusiasts from all over the world online.
Escomu explains, “With the internet, it is easy to learn and communicate, even if you don’t have time nor money to travel. It’s a language you learn because you want to, not because there is a nation with economical or military power behind it.”
There are now books to learn the language, forums to discuss it and people to speak it with, all free and readily available. The world has become much more interconnected than it previously was, and an increased number of people are being exposed to new ideas and cultures. If anything, the need for a language we can all understand has only grown.
Esperanto is unique in that there is no hierarchy in the language. For example, no matter how good you get at French, you will never speak it as well as a native; there will always be a degree of inferiority. In comparison, as almost all Esperanto speakers have the language as a second language, a conversation in Esperanto is truly a conversation of equals.
The community of Esperanto speakers is different from any other language group as all members choose to speak it, rather than being born into it or being forced to learn it. Larry Kenny, another self-taught Esperanto speaker explains, “In some respects, it’s a pretty ordinary, pretty European language. What makes it stand out, linguistically, is the obvious; [no one] speaks it natively. As a consequence, anybody can rise to the standard of proficiency that is [usually] reserved for native speakers.”
Out of the 6,800 languages known in the world, Esperanto ranks in the top 100, having the 29th largest Wikipedia site, ahead of Arabic. There is a thriving culture behind Esperanto comprising of blogs, a newspaper and a radio station. There are over 50,000 books available in Esperanto, songs which can be found on YouTube, and even movies, the best known of which is Incubus, starring William Shatner. Esperanto even has its own flag and anthem.
The idea of learning a new language can be daunting, of course. Verb conjugations, grammar rules, and odd spellings are all parts of a language that just have to be learned. All of that is removed from Esperanto. Grammar rules are minimal and Zamenhof once boasted that you can learn the grammar of Esperanto in an hour.
As Esperanto was invented, it was designed to be as clear as possible and without any of the strange rules found in other languages. It is a language of logic more than anything else. As Kenny explains, “[I love] the language’s built-in tendency to accept, in a sense, anything that makes sense.”
Esperanto is so easy to learn that a study by the Cybernetic Pedagogy at Paderborn, Germany found that while it takes 2,000 hours to learn German, 1,500 to learn English, and 1,000 to learn Italian, it only takes 150 hours to learn Esperanto.
For Bart Anderson of California, the ease of speaking Esperanto helps people to maintain the motivation required to learn it; people are able to use it much quicker than any other language. “I studied German for three and a half years in high school, and again on my own. Even so, I could read Esperanto more easily than German after studying it for only a few months.”
The ease with which you can speak it makes Esperanto open for anyone to learn; you don’t have to spend a huge amount of time on lessons. Head of USA Esperanto Association, Bill Harris, believes, “Esperanto is the most democratic language in the world.”
The value of Esperanto was acknowledged by the Grin Report, which was created to examine the future of linguistic communication within Europe. It found that making English the primary language of Europe was not feasible as it would give all native English speakers an unfair advantage over the rest of Europe.
Native speakers would automatically dominate any conversation or communication and be saved time and effort of learning another language, while an extra burden would be put on everyone else. Neither would a system of multilingualism where people learned English, French or German, be feasible as it would still create some favoured languages that would dominate. There would be large costs in terms of time and translation.
The report found that if every country adopted Esperanto as its second language, it would save €25 billion across the EU. People could communicate effectively without fear of diluting their national identity. The report concluded that Esperanto was the best long term strategy.
A common criticism of Esperanto is that it is an “artificial” language. While this may have been true at one time, presently it has a flourishing culture behind it. As all of its words derive from European languages, it has a flow and rhythm that would be lacking if the words were simply made up.
In a sense, all languages are to a degree artificial, composed of approved rules and spellings that are rigidly enforced. No language is truly “natural,” as all have standardised spelling and language boards that decide how people should speak.
When asked about the language, speakers highlight the ease of speaking it, the new culture you see emerging, and the people you meet as the main advantages.
Information Technology Analyst from the University of Kansas Andrew Beals uses Esperanto to create worldwide contacts. “I spent an afternoon chatting, drinking tea with a professor in Shanghai. Someone I never would have met if we didn’t both speak Esperanto.”
Anderson believes there is a community emerging among the Esperanto speakers across the globe. “Perhaps the most unusual aspect of Esperanto is the community that speaks it. It is an idealistic, grassroots movement that has lasted for more than 125 years. There’s a lot that we can learn from it.”
So, is Esperanto a success? There are believed to be as many as 2 million speakers in the world, making it roughly as popular as Irish. So while it has not succeeded in becoming the international second language of the world, most argue that this misses the point.
Nowadays Esperanto is best viewed as a way to meet people and experience different cultures. It allows you to connect to people you would never otherwise have met and visit places you would otherwise have never seen. Many speakers make lasting friendships with other enthusiasts from across the globe.
Even if it brings only a small number of people together, Esperanto can still be considered a success, and perhaps one day be seen as truly beneficial and a worthwhile investment for countries around the world.
The community of speakers are hopeful for the future, and believe interest in the language will continue to grow. Beals believes, “One day, it will stop being a joke, as people will realize not only its utility, but also the wealth of interesting literature that one would otherwise never ever see.
“We Esperantists will be here, waiting, and will welcome people with open hearts and arms, because that’s the kind of community we have.”
Useful Esperanto Phrases
How are you? Kiel vi fartas?
My name is . . . Mia nomo estas . . .
Do you speak Esperanto? Ĉu vi parolas Esperaton?
Where are you from? De kie vi estas?
How much is this? Kiom tio kostas?
My hovercraft is full of eels Mia kusenveturilo estas plena da angiloj
The University Observer is the best paper in Ireland La Universitato Observanto estas la plej bona gazeto en Irlando