Why I’m learning Esperanto, a constructed a language

Languages have never been my strong suit.

An assumption many Canadians have run into abroad, myself included, is that most people in our country are bilingual. I’ve found that many non-Canadians believe this in spite of knowing that exactly one province in our federation is majority francophone.

“But isn’t it taught in all the schools?” they ask.

It is — poorly. At least, I felt it was taught poorly to me. I can’t pin all of the blame for my monolingualism on Ontario’s public school system: my dad actively discouraged my French language education. But I feel as though a pretty important element that nine year-olds should know before they’re taught a second language was conspicuously absent from my first French class in fourth grade.

Here’s what I would tell my students if I somehow ended up as a French teacher (god help them):

“Is everyone back from recess? Good. Welcome to French class. Here’s the first thing you need to know: all languages have this thing called grammar. You may have heard that word before. What the hell does it mean? It means this: every language has rules — rules about word order, rules about usage, and so on — and we call those rules grammar. You may assume that English grammar is simply correct, or that it’s universal, but you would be wrong. You would also be an Anglocentric cultural imperialist (I wouldn’t actually say that).”

“In this class you will not only learn French words, or vocabulary, you will learn French grammar. It will frustrate the crap out of you. When you go on to middle school, you will use Google Translate to complete your assignments and still get bad marks because of the nuances of French grammar. For 90 per cent of you, this process will continue until ninth grade, where you will get a c-minus in French and then vow to never take it as an elective for the rest of your education. You will look at the successful 10 per cent as your neuro-linguistic superiors who have somehow mastered this much more elegant language, and will thus forever be ahead of you in applying for any job in this country.”

I may have inserted some autobiography there.

Anyway, I feel like little Richard should have been warned that language is not a synonym for vocabulary.

Fast forward to the summer of 2012: I remembered that there had been an effort to establish a global language, and that this movement had peaked just before World War 2 (I’m not sure if this is true, but that was my uninformed impression).

So I did what I always do when I randomly think of something I know almost nothing about, and went to Wikipedia. This is what I learned, condensed:

Esperanto is a constructed language, meaning some guy sat down and invented it at his work desk. That guy’s name was Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof. I won’t go into detail about him, but his biography has me convinced that he was basically the world’s kindest person.


Doktoro Esperanto

Zamenhof, a Polish Jew born in 1859, was fluent in Yiddish, Russian, Polish, French, and German. He also studied Ancient Greek, Latin, Hebrew, English, Aramaic, Lithuanian and Italian. So yeah, you could say he was okay with languages.

Zamenhof created Esperanto not only because he thought a global auxiliary language would be convenient, but also because he hoped it would promote peace and understanding across nations and cultures. Indeed, Esperanto translates, in Esperanto, to “One who hopes.”

Tragically, all of Zamenhof’s three children were murdered in the Holocaust. Esperantists were a target of the Nazis because the latter believed the former were part of some sort of Bolshevik conspiracy for Jewish world domination. I’m glad Zamenhof didn’t witness this horror, and I’d like to think that he’d be pleased to know that his language lives on today. Globalization and the internet, among other things, have given it new life.

I was reading just because I was curious, and had no intention of learning the language. But, of course, to learn about a language one has to learn a bit of the language itself, and the more I learned Esperanto the more I wanted to study it.

Esperanto has rules, like all languages, but there’s a crucial difference: because it’s a constructed language, there are no exceptions to the rules. In English, the “rules” have so many exceptions that it’s basically pointless to learn them. This difference makes translating things into or from Esperanto like solving a puzzle.

For example, all nouns end in o, all adjectives in a, and all adverbs in e. Verbs, depending on the tense, can end in “as” (present) “is” (past) “os” (future) “i” (infinitive) or “u” (imperative). All letters are pronounced exactly the same way at all times. The letter j is added to the end of a noun to make it plural. Many words are formed using a simple system of suffixes and prefixes.


The Esperanto alphabet

Just in case you couldn’t tell from this post, I have some weird interests. One of those is the Latin and Greek origins of English words. Esperanto primarily draws on Latin, so learning Esperanto’s vocabulary has improved my understanding of my mother tongue. An example from my first textbook: “hand” or “a hand” in Esperanto is “mano”. This comes from the Latin manus, from which we get words like manufacture, manuscript, manual, and manually. “Body” or “a body” is korpo, which comes from the Latin corpus, from which we get words like corporation, corpse, incorporate, corporeal, etc.

Here’s a simple sentence:

La juna viro staras en la ĉambro. = The young man stands (is standing) in the room.

That sentence can be translated directly to English, but Esperanto has some differences that take getting used to as a native English speaker. Word order isn’t always the same, adjectives have to agree with nouns (junaj viroj, not juna viroj), and the direct object is used (nouns receiving an action must have “n” added to the end of them).

A friend who studied Spanish in school told me that it sounds like Spanish, and this is a common thing Esperantists hear, but really the language is more similar to Latin or Italian. Indeed, back when there were much fewer resources to hear spoken Esperanto, Zamenhof himself recommended listening to Italian to master the pronunciation.

Fluency in Esperanto is achieved much more quickly than in other languages, usually by a factor of 10 to 15 times.

I can hear you now: what good is that when the language is a million times more useless, practically speaking?

But here’s the interesting thing — learning Esperanto cuts down learning times for other languages substantially. Why? It has something to do with the fact that learning a language so rationally constructed is a good first step if you plan on learning languages like English, French, Spanish, and really any non-constructed language, with all of their head-scratching exceptions, multiple pronunciations of the same letter, and different meanings of the same word depending on the context.

That isn’t the only benefit. As I was saying, studying Esperanto has improved my knowledge of English, and my knowledge of linguistics in general. I’d like to think it’s improved my vocabulary, though friends tell me I’m nauseatingly verbose as is.

Another thing I hear depressingly often: why associate yourself with this failure? It was supposed to be a global language spoken by everyone, but it’s not. Therefore, it failed.

I’ve always had a different perspective on that. When non-Esperantists tell me that *only* a few million people worldwide speak Esperanto, it sort of reminds me of that Russell Peters joke where he talks about how white people assume Indians don’t understand what their accent sounds like until they’re told by a white person.

Esperantists are aware of the fact that the number of people who speak the language is probably on the lower end of 7 billion.

So is the language a failure? Not in my view. Not at all. It achieved its original goal — speakers can be found in nearly every country in the world. There’s even a service that pairs up travelling Esperantists with hosts from all over the globe (travelling the world in this way is one of my future strange adventures). Through services like that, Esperanto has achieved at least a degree of the cross-cultural understanding that Zamenhof dreamed it would.



Where to?

Further, what blows my effing mind is that there are native Esperanto speakers out there — people who’ve learned the language from birth. That means there are people who have accents — ACCENTS — from a language that some guy created at his desk less than two centuries ago.

I can only speak for myself, but if I accomplished that I wouldn’t hang my head in shame.