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.