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October 23, 2012
How To Not Care What Other People Think
November 20, 2012

Why I’m Learning Esperanto


Writing a blog that is metaphysically inclined and at least somewhat about personal development, sometimes I clutch at the things which distinguish me in some way from one of the billions of other Steve Pavlina clones out there.

Like Steve Pavlina, I’m vegan and polyamorous, tried raw veganism, refuse to get a job, believe in a rather funky mix of esoteric and New Age ideas, lucid dream, and like to work on my psychic abilities. (Oh, and I have a personal development blog too).

This year I celebrated one of the biggest personal development journeys that Steve Pavlina just won’t touch: transitioning from Male to Female.

Now, I can talk about something else that sets me apart: learning Esperanto.

What Is Esperanto?

In case you haven’t heard of it (really??), Esperanto, well, it’s a language.

It’s an artificial language created by one Dr. Zamenhof and first published in 1887. With between 100,000 and 2 million speakers depending on how conservative your estimate is, it’s the most widely spoken artificial language in the world by a very long shot.

Whaa?

Yeah, so, I’m sure you’re wondering, why am I learning an artificial language?

A lot of proud language geeks would answer a question like that with “just because”.

I’d like to think of myself as a failed language geek. I do see the beauty inherent in languages and love to learn bits and bobs of languages just for their own sake. But, I don’t usually have the stamina to learn an entire language just because it’s beautiful. When I learn a language, it’s mostly (if not entirely) a means to an end.

I’ve been attracted to Esperanto for a long time because of its ideology and the culture that surrounds it.

Image: The Unua Libro, the first book published by Zamenhof detailing his international language. (Note that his pen name “Dr. Esperanto” was later adopted as the name for his language). Looking at this book, I feel something of a flashback to the excitement, the sense of potential, that those who held it must have felt. (Image from Wikipedia)

A Brief History of Esperanto

As you’ll read repeatedly if you get into learning Esperanto, Zamenhof was inspired to create it by his upbringing in the multiethnic city of Białystok, now part of Poland.

There, several different language/culture groups existed, including Yiddish-speaking Jews, Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, and Belorussians. He saw with incredible clarity there how language divided people into seemingly separate groups, whereupon conflict was easily stirred up.

To cut a long story short, Zamenhof decided that the solution was a politically neutral, international language, one that could unite all peoples rather than divide them.

Why Esperanto And Not English?

Of course, back then there wasn’t an international language available with the same power as English has nowadays. With English, you can kind of expect to get around well enough in any major city in the world.

Still, Esperanto has two major benefits, even today, which would make it better in the international stage than English:

1. It’s neutral.

A language seems to always be tied with some kind of culture. English is tied with the Anglosaxon cultures. It doesn’t make people feel united by a language: at best, it is utilitarian, and at worst, it is a painful reminder of the dominance of Anglosaxon culture in the world. It’s also unfair in that Anglosaxons don’t have to work to be understood in the same way other people do.

On the other hand, Esperanto has a culture that is not tied with any one people – a culture of inclusion. When people use it, they feel part of something bigger, together. It fosters feelings of brother and sisterhood and leaves no one out.

2. It’s easy.

As a Failed Language Geek this one feels particularly salient. Esperanto is easy. How easy? According to one study, it could be 10-15 times faster to learn than comparable natural languages. To quote Wikipedia:

The Institute of Cybernetic Pedagogy at Paderborn (Germany) has compared the length of study time it takes natively French-speaking high-school students to obtain comparable ‘standard’ levels in Esperanto, English, German, and Italian.[30] The results were:

  • 2000 hours studying German = 1500 hours studying English = 1000 hours studying Italian (or any other Romance language) = 150 hours studying Esperanto.

This is the one reason why I think that even though English is as useful as it is today, Esperanto would still make a better international language if we put the effort into learning it.

Imagine 2 people wanted to have a business relationship but had no shared language. One speaks French, the other speaks German. One could learn German – 2000 hours down the drain. Or the other could learn French – I’m supposing that would take at least 1500 hours, maybe more. Or, they could both learn Esperanto. The total time spent learning is 300 hours, a fraction of the time either would spend learning a natural language.

This set-up is simple because it’s easy for two people to see the benefit of learning Esperanto when they both have something to gain. It’s harder, of course, to convince thousands of people to learn Esperanto. But – just supposing they did – the economics of languages here just blows English out of the water. Thousands, millions, billions of hours could be saved. Not only that, those who would otherwise be unable to learn a language because of aptitude or time restraints might then be able to.


Esperanto As An Easy Language

Esperanto manages all of this by being completely regular and phonetic. It also has a system whereby you can create words using different affixes. For instance, any word can be changed from a noun to an adjective to a verb to an adverb. You can also create words like trinkejo (place where you drink) or skribilo (writing implement). Even though I’ve never heard these words before, I know they’d be easily understood – and probably even already exist. I’d also understand them if someone else said them, without having to learn more words.

I particularly like this system because Esperanto seems to have the power to communicate more meaning in fewer words like this. You can shape the language to your needs. Sometimes I’ve just been swept away by the beauty of it – the aesthetics of the language, yes, but also its power, the glory of being able to make words do what you want them to so easily.

Now, I’m an ideological person, as you know. I’m the sort of person who would be behind a radical restructuring of the English language to make it more regular and logical. Or at least phonetic. Phonetic – is that too much to ask??

For me, these days, Esperanto is my answer to that. How far can you go ironing out a natural language’s inconsistencies?- quite far, I’m sure, but in the end perhaps it makes more sense to start with a clean slate. And, besides, Esperanto has so many other things that make it appeal to an ideological person, so it seems like an obvious choice.

The Problem With Being Ideological

So, you may say that I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one. I hope one day you’ll join us…

But really, yes, I know. Esperanto is a more logical, better solution than English. But, it’s just not going to happen. People don’t care enough to make the effort or even listen to arguments in favour of Esperanto.

I have two answers to that:

Long Term

One is my appeal to the long term.

As a basic optimist, I believe that any positive change can be fostered with time. Just look at women’s rights, the end of slavery, gay rights, trans rights… oh okay, give that last one a few more decades… 🙂

I believe that as people become prosperous and stop worrying about survival so much, the natural response is to slowly become more open to social change and/or more able to instigate it.

Curiously I also believe that human-bourne disaster could end society as we know it. But if we manage to overcome that, the world is ripe for improvements in all areas, and as ever it will be the effort of a mass of dedicated individuals who make it happen.

Be The Change You Wish To See In The World

My other reply to the accusation of ideologist is just that if I want to see something happen in the world, I can only begin with myself. By learning Esperanto, I will make it that little bit more useful for other people to learn. (I like to think I’m nice to talk to).

If I want to end animal cruelty, I can start by going vegan, and if I want to end poverty on Earth, I can start by ending my own poverty and then try and help others. I can’t control other people’s actions, but I can control myself, and at the very least if I do this I can say at the end of my life, “I wasn’t part of the problem. I wasn’t victim to the status quo; I was powerful. I did what I could.”

Besides, because of the ripple effect — accounting for the fact that we all influence each other and that a small action can grow in this way to be a big one — perhaps just doing what I can is not such a small thing.

Who knows – I know it’s what feels good to me.

Having Fun With Esperanto

This December I’m signed up for JES – a week-long convention filled with Esperanto speakers from all over the world.

Not only will I be able to speak Esperanto and make friends – I’ll be able to enjoy an environment of people who are also ideological. Who want to see a better world. At the very least, who are nonconformist.

A typical Esperanto convention involves singing, dancing, local food, in-jokes, workshops, talks, and of course – conversation in Esperanto. Those who don’t speak it so well yet (such as me) will get the chance to learn some from more experienced speakers in workshops or unofficial teacher-student relationships.

The people there are usually very non-conformist. LGBT people are usually well-represented, as are polyamorous people (polyamory was actually kind of my gateway into the Esperanto community), vegetarians and vegans, geeks of all sorts, artists, writers, and dreamers. I think I and all my eccentricities will feel very welcomed at JES, as was the case in a smaller Esperanto event I went to. I also feel like these will be exactly the sort of people I want to be friends with.

The Esperanto world is a microcosm of inclusion and brother-sister-hood. Even if just because of the community I think it’s worth being part of. What about you?


Related:

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3 Comments

  1. Albalida says:

    I was so enthusiastic about this in high school! I guess because it was so easy to learn, it was easy to forget when I had nobody to talk with in it. I’m glad you found people!

    Although, I’ll elaborate on some other challenges and obstacles that I encountered with Esperanto. First, it’s so very Euro-centric. Yeah, yeah, “springboard to… as it spreads…” Hrmm, no. It was invented by a Polish guy who sampled from other European languages. It has gender-binary pronouns. I could try to transfer the pronouns from Bahasa Indonesia to Esperanto, because Bahasa is awesome (saya, I; kamu, you; dia, gender-neutral pronoun referring to a third-person that I can’t remember if it can also be plural; kami, “we” that is inclusive of the speaker and excludes the listener; kita, “we” that is inclusive of both the speaker and the listener) — but when I try, I had difficulty fitting them in comfortably, because the basic grammar structure of Esperanto is already European.

    Then there’s the vocabulary. How do we go about adding an equal roster of nouns and verbs from languages all over the world? I still see an imbalance of national power and disproportionate representation of those in linguistic power (by class as well as geo-politics) to mete out in the vocabulary that Esperanto would use.

    It was easy for me to learn because I had familiarity with European languages. Someone who speaks a language that does not share that construct, would find it more difficult and I don’t think that’s fair either.

    It’s a noble destination, but to my mind Esperanto as the first step was already either in the wrong direction, or weighed with baggage of stuff that isn’t useful to getting there.

    • Sophia Gubb says:

      regarding gender, there is the gender-neutral pronoun “ri” which quite a lot of people use. the male suffix “-icx-” was invented (e.g. viricxo) which some people use too. so instead of “miaj gepatroj” it’s “miaj patroj” and mother and father would be “patricho” and “patrino”.

      its annoying that “patro” comes from a root meaning “father” but it’s not too bad.

      as for esperanto being euro-centric, its true.. i just feel that that isn’t enough to make the project worthless… in fact i hear esperanto is pretty popular in japan because they find other european languages so hard. i guess they either hope to find esperanto speakers in europe when they travel or they want to use esperanto as a bridge to harder languages.

  2. Enrique says:

    Yes, the Esperanto language rely a lot (not all) in European languages … not all the grammar. All European languages have lots of exceptions in their grammar rules. Esperanto doesn’t have that. So they are very different. I found very interesting that most people that complain that Esperanto is “too” European, want to use English as an International language … as if English were less European than Esperanto.

    I have used Esperanto in Japan, Korea, China, and Vietnam. I didn’t hear anybody complaining that Esperanto is European. I heard many times that Esperanto is much easier than English.

    For reasons why to learn Esperanto, please see this web page:
    http://esperantofre.com/faktoj/

    I cannot believe people complaining that they cannot find people to speak in Esperanto. Using Skype, Facebook, and every instant messenger is very easy to find Esperanto speakers. Also lernu.net and many other chat rooms.

    All the complains that beginners or people that don’t know Esperanto make about the language or the vocabulary, can be applied to most other languages. People that want to change Esperanto, should know that Esperanto have been working very well during 125 years. Languages cannot be changed by one person. Only usage can change a language. After you learn Esperanto and use it for a while, you will find that it works very well as it is.

    I have been using Esperanto during more than a half century. I learned it in 1959.

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