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:
- lernu.net, one of the main sites for learning Esperanto
- Esperanto lessons in German
- an online dictionary
- how to talk dirty in Esperanto
- Gerda Malaperis, an easy esperanto book with clickable translations for words
- Radio Verda, an Esperanto podcast
- Baza Radikaro Oficiala / 2500 basic word roots
- Common roots glossary, with ~500 roots that give 95% comprehension of spoken Esperanto
- Esperanto-English glossary, similar to the other glossary, but with a better summary of prefixes and suffixes.
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!