As you read this on Monday, I’ll be on the train to a week-long Esperanto new years party called JES. Stay tuned for more from me when I get back in January and start working on Dutch!
Lately I’ve been puzzling over new ways to practice active language skills. Over the past few years I’ve become much more skilled at acquiring passive language skills (reading / listening / understanding), but I haven’t really gotten the hang of the active part as much as I hoped.
When I arrived in Germany, it was extremely easy for me to understand what everyone was saying and what was on all the signs and menus, because I had already read a dozen full books in German, watched hundreds of hours of TV, and listened to a lot of audiobooks, all while I was working full time back in Canada to save up for the trip. As I started trying to speak to people, my active skills developed at a reasonable pace, proportional to how much speaking I did, and it was greatly helped by my ability to understand everything my other conversation partners were saying in return.
Esperanto, on the other hand, has been somewhat of a different story. I learned the basics through some step-by-step lessons in about 35 hours, and then I was able to read a lot of sites I found on the internet somewhat successfully (like an article from some Japanese antiwar activists who were writing, in Esperanto, about their country’s unconstitutional contributions to the Iraq War). I didn’t do that much reading in it at all, although I did a bit of listening to the Radio Verda podcasts, which are, incidentally, produced by two people in my home town of Vancouver (although I haven’t yet met them).
With Esperanto, I didn’t have as much of the intuitive sense of the language that I had with German, and I felt rather frustrated in my attempts to speak it. I had heard a lot of other people saying that Esperanto was the language that they felt most at home with, other than their native language, but I didn’t feel this at all.
I realized that the unique feature of Esperanto that comes into play here, is that the grammar is completely regular, which allows you to follow your intuitions and know that you’ll always be right, despite not being a native speaker. There’s no need to spend years receiving the input required to learn all the annoying exceptions that occur in the other languages.
With that in mind, I set out to pursue an output-oriented activity in Esperanto: I started editing articles in the Esperanto Wikipedia. My plan was to pick some Esperanto articles that need a bit of work, and then look for a larger article in the English Wikipedia and translate a section to add back to the Esperanto side.
It turns out that Esperanto Wikipedia is quite a fun project on its own. It already has around 138000 articles currently, which puts it among the top ranks in terms of size, compared to all the other languages. Compared to the estimated 1M – 2M speakers of Esperanto (very few of whom are natives), this is an exceptionally high ratio of articles to speakers. To make things more interesting, there’s also a system to show the List of 1000 articles every Wikipedia should have, which ranks the different Wikipedias according to the size of their verions of these 1000 articles. Stubs (less than 10kB) are worth 1, medium articles (10kB – 30kB) are worth 4, and large articles are worth 9 (more than 30kB). The overall score is then normalized to a score out of a possible 100, by dividing the total by 90.
If you look at the resuls of this “quality” metric, it’s interesting to note that Catalan is in the top position, above English. English has far more articles than Catalan, but of those important 1000 articles, Catalan has more detail. It appears that there’s some group of Catalan speakers who are quite dedicated to ensuring that their wikipedia is of high quality (which I think is a rather good idea, considering that the language was suppressed in various areas of public life under the Franco dictatorship, until his death in 1975) . In this ranking, Esperanto is in 33rd place, lacking none of the 1000 articles, but with only 57 of those in the “large” category.
For me, this means great fun! There’s a high score list, and anyone can help increase the greater glory of Esperanto ;). So I started picking some articles that sounded interesting, and read their Esperanto versions. Then I picked a section of the English version that looked easy to translate, and started working on it, trying to get my chosen article up past the 10kB mark into the realm of “medium” articles, which increases its worth from 1 to 4 points out of a possible 9.
At first, I was going quite slowly. I had to look up a lot of words, and I had to ask for a lot of help in formulating the sentences to convey the exact meaning I was looking for. If I were just chatting on the street, I probably would have been close enough for the other person to figure out what I meant, but it was harder to get the precision that I wanted for Wikipedia.
I spent most of this past week hacking away on various articles. The hard work paid off, though. My production speed has greatly increased, and now I can much more easily spot errors in other people’s writing. I can compose things from scratch, and I can translate with ease. I’ve also solidified the basic vocabulary much more, and learned a lot of rather obscure words too. Most importantly, the task was fun to do, which allowed me to continue for several hours each day without feeling like it was “work”.
So, I’m now feeling quite ready to spend the next week speaking nothing but Esperanto with friends and new acquaintances at JES, which will be held in a small town called Burg in the Spree forest just south of Berlin. Among the more than 300 attendees will be Chuck Smith, the founder of the Esperanto Wikipedia, who currently writes at the Transparent Language Esperanto blog, and is good friend of mine here in Berlin. Also a very good friend, the very experienced polyglot known to some of you on HTLAL as Sprachprofi will be coming, as well as globe-trotting polyglot Benny Lewis.
See you in January 🙂