the writing of Claude Piron

2009-11-26

Lately I’ve become really impressed by various articles about Esperanto that I’ve read by Claude Piron. Piron was a psychotherapist and taught from 1973 to 1994 in the psychology department at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. He apparently spoke Esperanto since he was a small child, and is a notable author in it.

I first encountered him as I was reading his instructional novella “Gerda malaperis” (“Gerda disappeared“). It’s a book that gradually introduces Esperanto vocabulary, moving from the basics quickly up to an intermediate/advanced level by the end of the book. It seems very well thought out as instructional material. I’m reading it online at Lernu.net, where it’s available with audio and vocabulary lists for each chapter.

After working through some of this instructional book, I somehow stumbled upon Claude Piron’s articles in English. In them, he demonstrates a powerful ability for critical thinking and analysis of arguments. I particularly enjoyed his Psychological reactions to Esperanto.

Also illuminating was his shorter article, The language of power, wherein English is analyzed. He asks if English is actually an “international language”, and argues strongly that it isn’t. Very few people in the world actually speak English, and because of its great irregularity and mishmash of romance and germanic roots, it takes thousands and thousands of hours of work in order to master it. Only about 3% of people in India can speak it, despite the elite there being quite good at it, and even people in France who rate themselves as “quite good” at English were unable to figure out 3 short English paragraphs in one test.

As a consequence, most speakers of English as a second language who don’t already come from a germanic language background, are from a higher economic class where they can afford to go to fancy schools and spend significant time living or working in an english-speaking country. Not many people have the opportunity to spend 2000 – 10000 hours learning English, and those of us fortunate enough to be born in an English-speaking country have received a free-ride in that department. In the words of one Korean that Piron quotes, he could have achieved several PhDs in the time it took him to learn fluent English. In contrast, Esperanto can be learned by most people in around 150 – 200 hours, so on a scale of months rather than years or decades.

Beyond the realm of language politics, Piron had some interesting articles about the evolution of Esperanto itself. Quite an interesting read from a linguistics perspective, and even more interesting for me as a learner of Esperanto.

In many of his articles, such as Linguistic Communication – A comparative field study, Piron stresses the hierarchy of power that develops in circumstances where some people are native speakers of a language, and have to communicate with those that aren’t. Inherent in this situation is the fact that those native speakers will always be authoritative, and the others will be in an inferior position. This could be remedied somewhat if everyone opted to speak a language other than their native language, to level the playing field, but of course in the realm of power relations this is rarely an option. In such situations, it makes plenty of sense to take as a working language one that takes an order of magnitude less time to acquire, one in which everyone is on equal footing.

It seems clear to me now that this is a role that Esperanto could and should play. Not as a “replacement” for any other languages, but as a tool of international communication that levels the current language hierarchies. Everyone can and should speak their own language or dialect in their “home” situations where everyone else around them can also do so, but in those situations that require communication with outsiders that don’t speak that language, Esperanto is the logical and efficient tool for the job. Whether it is up to the task is an empirical question rather than philosophical, and I think this has been proven by the 100+ year tradition that it has enjoyed as a language for poetry, novels, theatre, children’s play, and international communication.


esperanto

2009-11-20

Remember that the sole means of achieving peace is to abolish for ever the main cause of wars, the survival since the most distant pre-civilization world of antiquity of the domination by one people of other peoples.
– Zamenhof, 1915

Even though I’d heard about Esperanto several years ago, I dismissed it at the time because I was more interested in what I thought of as “real” languages – those spoken natively by many people. I’ve also had a passing interest in learning Lojban, another constructed language, but I lumped them both into the same category.

Recently, however, I’ve become much more interested in Esperanto due to what I’ve read about the philosophy, politics, and culture surrounding it. It seems like much more than just someone’s constructed hobby language, or an intellectual curiousity for language nerds. I’ve discovered lately that there’s a strong sense of equality and justice associated with the language (for example, in the Prague Manifesto). Thinking back, almost all of the Esperanto speakers that I’ve personally met have been Anarchists (edit: this is quite possibly due to the fact that I tend to hang out with lots of Anarchists). I even read about an Esperanto League in China in the 1920s (continuing today) which was promoted by Chinese Anarchists as a way for the Chinese people to communicate with the worldwide working class in order to promote social justice. (There are apparently still some radio stations in China that broadcast in Esperanto, and I’ve found that Japan apparently has one of the highest densities of Esperanto speakers.)

Here’s a description from Dr. Ludovic Zamenhof, a Jew from Poland who created Esperanto in the 1870s:

The place where I was born and spent my childhood gave direction to all my future struggles. In Bialystok the inhabitants were divided into four distinct elements: Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews; each of these spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies. In such a town a sensitive nature feels more acutely than elsewhere the misery caused by language division and sees at every step that the diversity of languages is the first, or at least the most influential, basis for the separation of the human family into groups of enemies. I was brought up as an idealist; I was taught that all people were brothers, while outside in the street at every step I felt that there were no people, only Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews and so on. This was always a great torment to my infant mind, although many people may smile at such an ‘anguish for the world’ in a child. Since at that time I thought that ‘grown-ups’ were omnipotent, so I often said to myself that when I grew up I would certainly destroy this evil.

One of the important ideas behind Esperanto is that as an auxiliary language, everyone comes to it on level footing, with no hegemonic economic or political power enforcing or benefiting from its usage. Learning Esperanto means that you are willing to take a step towards the middle, to spend the same amount of effort as everyone else, rather than expecting everyone to accomodate you and learn your language. This is particularly relevant to me, as a native speaker of English in an imperialist country.

Relatedly, the League of Nations debated several times about whether to use Esperanto as its working language, only to be denied by the more powerful member countries.

The possibility of the League of Nations encouraging Esperanto and even adopting it as a working language was considered seriously, but met fierce resistance on the part of France. Esperanto was discussed several times between 1920 and 1924, and consideration was given to reports of the experience of learning the language in 26 countries. Delegates of eleven states (Belgium, Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, Czechoslovakia, Haiti, India, Italy, Persia, South Africa) recommended in 1920 that Esperanto should be learned in schools “as an easy means of international understanding” (Lins, 1988, 49-61)

As for resources, there’s a book available in the “Teach Yourself” series, and many more. There are also dozens of websites with free lessons. Here are some interesting sites I’ve found lately:

For now, I’m still concentrating my studies on German, but I’ll probably switch over to full-time study of Esperanto in January or February of next year. According to wikipedia, there was a study of French speakers who learned Esperanto and compared it to the time taken to learn other languages, and it was about 150 hours – around 10x less than the time required for them to learn German (2000hrs), English (1500hrs), or Italian (1000hrs). Given this extreme ease of learning, I expect I’ll be able to move quickly up to a decent level within maybe 2 months. I’ll be sure to post more info here once I start seriously working on it.

To begin, I’ll probably read through some descriptions of how the language works, and what types of structures to expect. Then I’ll move on to rapid vocabulary building, probably through Anki flashcards. Once I have familiarity with several hundred words (which should be easy to learn because of their etymological basis in mostly european languages), then I’ll move straight into trying to read books and poetry, of which there is apparently a lot of.

In the mean time, please let me know if any of you are interested in learning it with me. I’d love to have some study partners, especially once I get up to speed and start looking for Skype practice partners. Now, let me just end with a quote from the Prague Manifesto:

Any system of communication which confers lifelong privileges on some while requiring others to devote years of effort to achieving a lesser degree of competence is fundamentally antidemocratic. While Esperanto, like any language, is not perfect, it far outstrips other languages as a means of egalitarian communication on a world scale. We maintain that language inequality gives rise to communicative inequality at all levels, including the international level. We are a movement for democratic communication.

Ĝis la revido!


how to become a better listener

2009-11-08

(this was written as a response on HTLAL. here’s the original question)

Hey guys, I’m new to this language business. And I’m currently learning Spanish. When I’m reading, writing, learning, I find it very easy to pick things up like new words and sentences etc. However listening is just a nightmare, when someone starts rattling off verbally, I just crumble, how do you become a better listener when learning a language?

I’ve definitely felt this gap between written and audible communication. I had lots of trouble with this in Chinese, where I found that there was a lot of stuff that I could understand in written form, but not while listening.

One thing you need to adjust to is letting go of the words that you don’t understand. If you try super hard to understand every word that you hear, then you’ll get stuck in one place while the rest of the conversation continues without you. To solve this, you need to practice listening intensely to the sounds without getting “stuck”. You have to cultivate a mind-set where it’s ok for you to leave those words behind.

One way to practice is to find any sort of native-speaker audio (I particularly like news radio for this). Put it on, and just listen. I suggested news radio because it will have plenty of words that you don’t know, so you can get more comfortable with not knowing them (yet). Listen to the sounds, listen to how the language flows, and see if you can pick out a few words like the names of famous people and places.

Doing lots of listening of any sort will build your familiarity with the spoken language. I also like to have lots of audio on as “background noise” when I’m doing other things. Some people don’t like this as much, but I think that it really adds to the immersion environment. You don’t have to actively listen to it or understand it, just have it playing while you’re washing the dishes, walking to the bus stop, or even sitting at work (if it’s acceptable to have headphones on at work). This is just another way to get comfortable with the sounds and rhythms of the language.

The other benefit of using news radio for this, is that news radio is usually spoken very fast and very clearly. They almost never mumble the words. It’s very precise. Because it’s so fast, you can accustom yourself to the rhythm of an extremely fast speaker, and then when you go back to your regular slow-paced beginner material you’ll be amazed at how slow it sounds, and how easy it is to pick out lots of the words.

Another great way to practice listening is to watch lots of TV. As a beginner, I suggest watching something that you’re already familiar with (which may be an english show that’s dubbed in spanish). For example, I watched the entire series of “Star Trek: Deep Space 9” dubbed in german, and I learned a lot. The reason you want something familiar is because you will already know what the characters are like and what sorts of things happen in the plot. This will help you understand what’s going on even when there are many new words.

Also, just watching what the characters are doing in the scene will help you figure out what the words mean too. In Star Trek, I knew that usually when the captain gets to the bridge in an emergency scene, he shouts “Report!”. When I started watching it in German, a “red alert” scene came up, the captain came out, and he shouted “Bericht!” and I immediately understood it. 🙂

I’m sure that there are many other ways to improve your listening, but almost all of them involve spending hours and hours just listening to something. You get good at listening by listening. Yes, you will suck at the start, but that’s ok. Everyone sucks at the start. You just need to put lots and lots of time into it, and you will get good. Don’t worry about your current level, just try to get a little bit better each time. Step by step, you’ll improve, and after many hours you’ll realize that you understand quite a lot. 🙂


defining “fluency”

2009-11-06

(i was just discussing this over at how-to-learn-any-language.com and i figured i should post it here too)

I don’t think there’s much point in universally defining the term “fluent”, but for me it holds a useful purpose as a goal in my learning. I view “fluency” as that point where I can use the language without thinking about it consciously, and have a good conversation with someone about any topic that doesn’t require special education. Also, my accent should be good enough that I don’t have to repeat my words in order for native speakers to understand them.

When I try to apply these standards to some of the people I know, I think it fits quite well with my opinion of “who needs to study more” vs. “who is good enough”. For instance, I have two coworkers who are clearly not native speakers of English, but I would classify them as “fluent” as defined above. I never have to ask them to repeat their words, and they talk naturally without stopping, so it seems like they do it effortlessly. Sure, they make mistakes, and they don’t have a perfect accent, and there are some special topics that cause difficulties, but I can still easily classify their English as “good enough” in my eyes.

I have two other coworkers, however, who have trouble getting understood. They can talk about a lot of topics, sure, but people often have to ask them to say some words multiple times because they just can’t understand what word it was. Also, their grammar is noticeably weird, so I sometimes have to think about it a bit in order to get their meaning. For these two people, I would not call them “fluent” as I defined it, because I (as a native speaker) have to put in so much extra effort in order to get what they’re saying, and because it seems difficult for them to formulate things in the language.

Although they still manage to communicate quite well about many things, I would classify their skills as “needs more work”, and therefore as not yet fluent. In this sense, I see “fluency” as a worthwhile goal for myself. I want people to be able to understand everything I say without them putting in a lot of extra effort to figure out what I said. I want to effortlessly speak the language, and I want other people to effortlessly understand what I just said. Maybe I won’t be perfect in all ways, and maybe I won’t understand all sorts of obscure cultural references that they say, but all the stuff that I say will be clear, fluid, and easy to understand.

Becoming fluent is still a challenging and useful thing with this definition, but is clearly far below the level of a native speaker (linguistically and culturally). Right now, I understand almost everything I read in German, but my speaking ability would not pass this test, so I wouldn’t call myself “fluent”


october progress spreadsheet

2009-11-01

october_spreadsheet

October was an interesting month. At the start I had a small slump where I was just doing a small amount each day to keep up, but I managed to turn that around and increase again. I changed my balance slightly and did less tv, but more reading. This was partially due to getting a bit bored of star trek after over 100 episodes, so I have to change things around there if I want to keep watching more TV.

I learned that in this intermediate stage of my learning, it’s quite helpful to spend a week doing some hard vocab work (in which I added lots of example sentences to Anki from my “Mastering German Vocabulary” book). This extensive vocabulary work allowed me to push through to a stage where I understand most of the words on the page quite easily, and there are only a few words that I don’t know.

For the next month, I hope to continue increasing my vocabulary in some specific areas like science, economics, and politics. I also plan to start doing some basic speaking practice on my own, and I’m hoping to develop a better ability to think in German.