Esperanto: What’s the Big Idea behind the International Language?

Esperanto. What is it? Why am I learning it? Should you?

The Flag of Esperanto

Esperanto is a planned language developed by an amateur linguist in 1887. His goal was to create an easy to learn, universal second language.

The creator, L.L. Zamenhof was not alone in wanting to do this. The idea of a universal second language has been studied by linguist for centuries, pushed by idealist and desired by travelers, business people and diplomats. What sets Zamenhof’s language, Esperanto, off from the others is that its’ survived over 130 years of history and continues to have a large body of speakers worldwide. It has grown beyond the idea phase into a living language.

When I think of Esperanto, I divide the reasons for it into two categories, the big ideas and the little ones. The big ideas are why Zamenhof wrote the language and why so many people have learned it over the years. The little ideas are why you my want to learn the language. So let us begin:

The big idea

The construction of an international language is driven by three main motivations, convenience, fairness and understanding. All three are prevalent in Esperanto.

Convenience

The convenience of a single universal second language should be obvious, travelers, business people, and diplomats would have a single language to learn, instead of hundreds. Journals and news could be published in Esperanto and be instantly accessible around the globe to speakers of many languages.

International news in Esperanto is already a thing. Here are a few sources. 

To be truly convenient, this universal language must be simpler to learn than a natural language and Esperanto passes this test easily. Natural language learning is measured in years, Esperanto in months or in some cases weeks.

(Don’t be fooled by all the “learn Spanish in thirty days” courses out there. You might be able to have some really basic conversations at the end of that time, but real knowledge of Spanish takes on average two years of study.)

It’s fair.

But what does that have to do with fairness? Using any natural language as a second language, universal or otherwise, puts an enormous burden on nonnative speakers, who must spend years learning it. It also puts native speakers at a distinct advantage in any negotiations and just in life in general.

However if both parties learn the same second language, they have the same investment in time and are on much fairer footing with each other. If public services, like healthcare, government services, police, education, etc. are done in this universal language, all have equal access with our regard to linguistic abilities.

Understanding

Finally a universal second language could build a bridge between isolated linguistic communities. Eastern Europe of Zamenhof’s day was a mix of people who spoke different languages. His hometown of Bialystok was Polish, but filled with Russian, German and Jewish speakers.

In today’s world the problems are better in ways, worse in others. The internet and international news means that events are translated in a huge variety of languages in almost real time. But understanding often comes much slower. Facts translate easily, culture does not.

Just look at America’s convoluted relationship with the Middle East. The phrase “Allah Akbar” simple means “Praise be to God.” And yet images of Arabic men jumping up and down and yelling “Allah Akbar” have become iconic of radical terrorism and anti-American protests.

Many evangelic christian denominations say praise be to God. Many jump up and down and wave their hands during religious services.

What if both services appeared in the news with the caption “laudo estu al Dio?” (Esperanto for praise be to God) Would people realize those people over their aren’t doing anything that people over here do? Would it start to shift the narrative? I like to think so.

So Why Not?

Why aren’t we doing this?

The answers are many, and many are political. A lot of it comes down to two things, the myth that we already have a universal language and who that myth serves.

The myth is that we have a universal language: English. The reality is far different but I will address that in another blog, because it will take a lot of words.

Who benefits from this myth? Just about every English speaking country and many corporations. Both the US and the UK spend large sums of aid money on English education throughout the world because they know this is key to their national interests.

Africa is home to some of highest levels of language diversity on the globe. Thanks to a long history of colonialism, several of the commonly spoken languages that are used to bridge the gaps between linguistic groups are European languages, French, Portuguese and more recently English.

In modern times, American aid often comes with the English language. For example groups like the Peace Corp teaches practical agricultural skills but also sends many English teachers to impoverished areas. While the volunteers might be idealist, only wanting to help, those in Washington that pay for these programs often have a secondary motive, to keep Africa looking to the English speaking world for it’s future.

It is a great example of soft power, which are probably the future of global conflict. As a growing superpower and major oil importer, China would love to have a greater toe hold on African oil and mining wealth. How do they try to gain this foothold? In recent years Chinese foreign works have become vital to the industries in Africa. And Chinese language comes with them. As more and more Africans learn Chinese, they are more inclined to work with Chinese companies. And slowly the balance of power shifts.

Esperanto could serve to diffuse that conflict and reduce the soft power of corporations and governments alike. It would be a soft power revolution for Africans to have a unified second language that wasn’t beholden to any superpower. And that is the big idea of Esperanto.

Coming up next: The little idea. Or why you should learn Esperanto.

Convinced already? Check out Duolingo, the smartphone app that makes language learning easy.

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