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Q: Does Anyone Speak Esperanto Anymore?

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A: Between 1877 and 1885, a Polish Jew named L. L. Zamenhof constructed a beautiful synthesized language to aid in world peace. Zamenhof hoped that his universal, easy-to-learn dialect might create a world where people could communicate with one another using words rather than bullets. His language, Esperanto (which means “one who is hoping” in Esperanto and “one whose hope is a bit unrealistic,” in English), caught fire with European intellectuals, but never took root with the public at large.

Amazingly, however, there are actually some two million Esperanto-speakers worldwide today. But on the whole, people still prefer communicating with bullets: in the 20th century, there were some 110,000,000 war-related deaths. Of course, that shouldn’t stop you from learning it. Esperanto advocates say it’s easier to learn than most any other language. Still, that means you will only be able to say things like, “Pierre is going to the library with his friend the acrobat,” for the first six months.

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  • Christopher

    The Esperanto League for North America has the up-to-date latest, for Esperanto-speaking library-goers and their acrobatic friends.

    Ĉion bonan!

  • http://esperantofre.com/ Enrique

    Thank you for mentioning Esperanto …

    It is time for the media to tell the general public about Esperanto merits and accomplishments. It is very difficult to get the media to
    speak about Esperanto… and the few times they do, they always add some negative comments that takes away any desire to learn Esperanto by the reader.

    After 6 months of learning Esperanto you will be able to tell a few more things that just a sentence… Six months are enough to get some fluency in Esperanto.

    You tell “but never took root with the public at large.” I am part of the public at large. I am not intellectual not European. I learned to write and to speak Esperanto more than 40 years ago. I have been
    using it all this time. It took me a couple of months to start speaking Esperanto. It took me a couple of decades to get
    some fluency in English.

    Now it is better than ever, because thanks to Internet, we can communicate with almost the whole world. I was in China in July 2004. Over there I spoke mainly Esperanto, but… When they spoke English to me, it was because they wanted to sell me something. When they spoke Esperanto to me, it was because they wanted to be my friends.

    For a few ways to use Esperanto.

    You and your readers should start learning Esperanto now… I can assure you, you will be glad you did.

    Enrique
    Fremont, California, USA

  • http://esperanto.memlink.ca mankso

    Might I suggest something more up-to-date for learning Esperanto (if you are an English-speaker), also available via Amazon?:

    And to get some idea of what Esperanto sounds like in action, try listening to one of the daily Esperanto programs from Radio Polonia. There is also quite an array of active Yahoo & Google groups, and blogs, all using Esperanto.

  • http://ttt.usono.net Skatĉjo

    Of course people still speak Esperanto! I’m happy to count myself as one of the two million. Sure, it’s perhaps just an unusual hobby (for an American), but it’s still a quite fun one.

    As to how easy it is… heh. MUCH easier than you might think. It took me only a few months of part-time Esperanto study to far outstrip the levels I had achieved in German after studying that for four and a half years at the high school and college level (and my German study was anything but part time – an hour a day, five days a week, nine months out every year).

    I use the language literally every day, in correspondence with other people. It’s simple, but it’s not simplistic – the conversations I have in Esperanto are just as complex as any I have in English.

    So, yeah, it’s out there, and there’s a lot of people involved with it.

  • Scotty

    I am happy to be one of the two million. I am not a European intellectual. I live in South Africa, and I use Esperanto several times a week to communicate with people all over the world.

    After six months of learning, my discussions were already pretty complex. The acrobat and library may have featured after six months when I learned German and French, but in six months, you learn far more in Esperanto.

  • http://www.esperanto.org.ar Fajro

    Me too!

    Mi parolas esperanton

    I’m from Argentina ;-)

    ” “one whose hope is a bit unrealistic,” in English” ?????

    :-/

  • Rick Miller

    Your guess about only being able to say some strange, useless phrases after spending six months learning Esperanto are totally wrong. You must have been thinking of your experience in some other language class.

    After six months of casual study, most people can read and write in Esperanto about practically anything with the occasional help of a dictionary. Immersion courses for beginners to reach a basic conversational level are usually only one or two weeks long. People who study on their own for a while and then attend an international convention (“kongreso”) where they use Esperanto for one week typically come away confidently fluent.

    Because it’s easier, ordinary people can learn it. You don’t have to go “back to school” nor waste seven years of your life slogging through irregular verb forms just to sound stupid compared to a native speaker.

    After one year of learning and using Esperanto on the Internet, I went to a meeting of the Esperanto Society of Chicago and was able to understand and participate even though the entire meeting was conducted in Esperanto. Lately I’ve been using Esperanto nearly every day to keep in touch with friends and acquaintances all over the world.

    I like talking with people who want world peace but who still value their own language and culture. The only reasonable way to have both is to have a common secondary language, and Esperanto has proven to be the language that works.

  • Lenny the Labrat

    I learned Esperanto because I had a few weeks to kill and my brain was hungry for the challenge. I was surprised that after 3 weeks I could swap short emails with people in other countries about who I was and what I did. I also read a picture book and understood it without the help of a dictionary.

    I still speak Esperanto, but often find myself in a position of not knowing what to speak about with people whom I’ve never met and only know that I have Esperanto in common with them.

    The reason Esperanto will probably never catch on is that even though it’s by far the easiest language to learn (and by language I mean some form of communication in which it is possible to express just about anything, as opposed to say C++), learning a language, even Esperanto is a difficult undertaking. The payback is awfully slow for such an undertaking, and it would be difficult for most people to get over the hump where the payback would be greater than the effort. Of course, the more people that speak Esperanto, the lower the hump and the greater the payback. That means that there’s also a hill that Esperanto would need to get over to get there, and 2 million speakers is well below that need.

    But I enjoy the language any way.

  • http://skribitaj-pensoj.blogspot.com Luis Guillermo Restrepo Rivas

    The stupid part: “Still, that means you will only be able to say things like, “Pierre is going to the library with his friend the acrobat,” for the first six months.”

  • http://esperanten.blogspot.com/ kinlaso

    Mi ĉiutage uzadas Esperanton kaj mi amas ĝin!

    Mi estas de Usono.

    ~ kinlaso

  • http://www.grupoamikema.org Mar Kardenas

    My son and I are new subscribers of the magazine Mental Floss and we love it.
    I have to admit I was disappointed about the inaccuracy of the last statement of this article.
    I’m a new Esperantist, I started learning the language two years ago. Within two months I attended my first Esperanto event and was able to understand at least 90% of what the presenters were saying. I passed a proficiency test that weekend also.
    Esperanto is now enjoying a renassaince, thanks in part to the Internet and to the trend toward globalized societies.
    Its time has finally come.
    It is no longer just the hobby of a few enthusiasts with a passion for languages, Esperanto has proven to be a valuable tool in many fields, including science and technology.
    As a professional translator, I use Esperanto as a bridge between unusual language pairs.
    I am also the (paid) coordinator of an Esperanto Kids Club in California. Kids love its logical structure!
    As you can see, my small time investment to learn it two years ago is paying handsome dividends. Plus, I have friends around the world who are as welcome in my home as I am in theirs!

    Amike Via,
    Mar Kardenas

  • Rick Finney

    Mi legas kaj skibas Esperanton iomete. Mi lo?as en Taos, Novan Meksikio. Mi kredas ke neniu parolas Esperanton ?i tie, sed mi volus paroli ?in. **Rick Finney**

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Yesh li maspík ba’ayót b’limudéi Ivrít. Aní lo tzaríkh l’bazbéz zman shelí lilmód Esperánto, safá lo mehaolám hazéh, afílu m’futáHat ‘al y’déi Yehudí eHád.

    I have enough trouble learning Hebrew. I don’t need to waste my time learning an artificial language, even if it was invented by a fellow Jew.

  • Gert Bolten Maizonave

    I am happy and proud to be one of those Esperanto speakers, and i found yer “Still, that means you will only be able to say things like, “Pierre is going to the library with his friend the acrobat,” really stupid.
    I have learned it to a very proficient level in about 4 months. My english is not so good, and it took about ten years to get to have some clever conversation.
    It’s also stupid to say it did not work. I believe much less than 2M people spoke it when it was less than 150 years old, even with all the ships and warfare.

  • http://www.esperanto-usa.org filipo

    The last sentence is not an accurate description of Esperanto, but is a description of national languages that are much harder to learn.

    After several years of studying French or German, one might be able to order coffee in a restaurant or tell the taxi driver where the hotel is. But after six months of learning Esperanto (which is fun, by the way) you can chat about any topic at all quite fluently. It will be the subject at hand, something more meaningful than some dialog in a textbook.

    Esperanto is used everyday for the same things that people use other languages for, and the skill to do that is learned in a fraction of the time that it would take to accomplish with a national language.

  • http://ewolute.blogspot.com Thomas D.

    Actually, Esperanto is still to complicated. For example, why does it contain cases, why are adjectives congruent in plural etc.? Why are adverbs different from adjectives?
    A complete overview of the issues can be found here: (not by me)

  • T0dd

    Another one of the two million speaks out…

    I’m not sure why, but many people who know nothing about Esperanto seem tempted to make sweeping but false statements about it. This article happily manages to resist that temptation, except for the last statement which is, as others have noted, dead wrong. Still, one wonders why the author felt the urge to include it. A clue to the answer is perhaps in Ruvy’s comment above, i.e., that learning an artificial language is a waste of time. The “Pierre and the acrobat” statement is meant to give the same impression, isn’t it?

    Why do people believe that learning Esperanto is a waste of time? Reasons are seldom given, and I’m inclined to think this reaction is more emotional than reasoned.

    The claims that Esperanto is not simple enough started as soon as the ink dried on the original publication of Esperanto in 1887. Attempts to reform it have not ceased, between then and now. The most successful such reform, the language Ido, is 100 years old this year. And yet, for some reason neither Ido nor any other reformed Esperanto (or other planned language) has managed to generate more than a tiny fraction of the speaker base that Esperanto has. I have no explanation for that. It’s interesting though.

    There’s one thing that hasn’t been mentioned yet. In addition to speaking Esperanto, one who learns it has access to thousands of volumes of original and translated literature. Many people are unaware that from its very early days, and continuing to the present, Esperanto attracted the interest of writers. The reader is not limited to what’s on the internet.

  • http://users.pandora.be/raymond.gerard/esperanto/ Remush

    About: Actually, Esperanto is still to complicated. For example, why does it contain cases, why are adjectives congruent in plural etc.? Why are adverbs different from adjectives?

    Languages have different ways to avoid ambiguities. If you don’t use the same features as Esperanto, you will have to replace them with something even more complex. Due to the features you mentioned and a few others even more valuable, a translation of an English text of some size will always be shorter in Esperanto. This may be surprising as Esperanto words are longer than in English.
    Remuŝ (Belgio)

  • http://wiki.galbijim.com Mithridates

    “If you don’t use the same features as Esperanto, you will have to replace them with something even more complex.”

    No you don’t. Take out the -j in adjectives and -n unless needed by differing word order, and you have an even easier language. Mi havas libro. Libron mi havas. Cxu vi parolas Esperanto? Cxu vi Esperanton parolas? Mia amiko havas multa blua libroj. Much easier than Mia amiko havas multajn bluajn librojn. Nobody’s going to be wondering about what the ‘blua’ applies to if the rule were changed. Don’t forget that Zamenhof himself advocated getting rid of the adjectival agreement and supersigned letters.

  • Antonius

    Personally I feel that Esperanto is very simple to learn, however, I feel that the pronunciation of most of its words is too slavic for English-speakers to take seriously. Such awkward pronunciations such as “Kvarto” and the consonantal cluster “sc” could have been done much better. Perhaps relying almost entirely on the Romance languages for pronunciation purposes would have made Esperanto easier to flow off the tongue of English-speakers, as well as other nations which are not used to these awkward consonant clusters.

    Antonius

  • Allan Fineberg

    When I was about 13 years old (I’m 65 now), I came across a mention of Esperanto in a book by Mario Pei. The book was abut the search for a bridge language to serve the peoples of the world.

    With the help of a few library books, I familiarized myself with the basics of Esperanto grammar and vocabulary. It didn’t take long for me to become somewhat proficient in Esperanto.

    Over the years, I’ve made friends in the Esperanto world. I’ve stayed at their homes, and they’ve stayed at mine. The people who speak Esperanto are in general my kind of people. Frankly, I don’t care much if Esperanto never is officially adopted as “the world language” as long as I and other Esperantists can pursue our rather eccentric hobby.

  • http://xujie8410.blogspot.com xujie

    Mi amas Esperanton

  • Alex in the U.S.

    My comment is to Ruvy in Jerusalem (#13).

    Being able to speak more than 10 languages (including Esperanto) and learning Hebrew, Arabic and Persian at the moment, I have to say that Hebrew is the most difficult language I ever had to learn. My advice to you, try Esperanto, you’ll be amazed! And good luck with Hebrew!

  • Jérémie

    I think you shouldn’t criticize Esperanto so much : it’s an interesting language, being working for 120 years. And it’s really easy to learn and speak.

  • http://autrenet.blogspotµ.com autrenet

    Esperanto estas tre facila lingvo. Vi devas provi lerni. Estas Ludo.
    Learning esperanto is like a game.

  • Franco

    Esperanto estas tiel facila, ke mi povas jam diri preskaŭ ĉion, kion mi pensas. Kaj tion, kion mi skribas aŭ diras, vi povas kompreni se vi jam eĉ iomete studis. Mi ekstudis esperanton antaŭ malpli ol kvar monatoj. Mi devas pensi antaŭ skribi, sed kiam mi pensas, mi liberas min je diri ŝtultajn ideojn.

    The Esperanto language is so easy, that I can say already almost anything I can think. And what I write or say, you can understand if you have even only a little studied. I started studying Esperanto less than four months ago. I must think before I write, but when I think, I free myself of saying stupid things.

    Easy, logical, deep, sharp… that is what Esperanto carries in values. Don’t we need that as a species?

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy in Jerusalem

    I couldn’t resist commenting on some of the stuff I read here. I have little trouble understanding the Esperanto I see written here – but then again, i studied linguistics.

    However, my mail comes in Hebrew, my bills come in Hebrew. When my rental agreement comes written in Esperanto, then I’ll bother learning it.

  • Bernard in Canada

    I see a few criticisms of esperanto in these comments, that in all honesty don’t bear up very well under any scrutiny.

    These comments seem to generally be of 2 kinds:

    1) variations on “I’m too busy”, or “I’ll wait till it’s more popular”. OK, fair enough. That’s for you to determine; maybe you’ll find time for it later.

    2) the other comments basically boil down to “That’s not how it’s done in english” , or “It’s not what I’m used to”. Well guess what, there’s 5 or 6 thousand languages in this world, and each one has its own way of doing things. What may seem like the ‘natural’, ‘straight-forward’, ‘easiest’ arrangement to a native anglophone may be equally inside-out, backwards, complicated and arbitrary to a native speaker of, say, korean.

    Every gramatical feature is a trade-off, and Zamenhof not only theorised but extensively tested his language project before releasing the basic, proven framework. Over this 8-year testing period, he discovered that many seemingly great ideas didn’t work well in practice. For example, eliminating case entirely was one of those ideas — he found that relying on word order instead, quickly becomes more complex, and arbitrary, and difficult than a case to identify a direct object (especially for people accustomed to a different set of word-order rules).

    3) (though this hasn’t come up) While by far most proposals to reform or ‘improve’ esperanto amounted to attempts to make it more ‘european’. On the other hand, some find it to european already. After having learned the basics, I myself fell into this camp, until I met some japanese and korean esperantists at the Calgary Winter Olympic Games. My 2 semesters of japanese night-school wasn’t a lot of help. Their 12-14 years of english study wasn’t much use either. Though none of us had studied esperanto for more than 6 months (part time), we understood each other quite well, and far, far better than in english. Their attitude was “If we don’t find esperanto to be ‘too european’, you’re just making excuses”. I decided that maybe they had a point.

  • geo

    If Esperanto is dificult, then English is a nightmare to learn. I’m for Esperanto.

  • geo

    “Still, that means you will only be able to say things like, “Pierre is going to the library with his friend the acrobat,” for the first six months.”

    No, you don’t. It is English that is difficult, not Esperanto. After six month of learning it I was able to say thousand times more then I ever could in English. But don’t worry. English is doomed too. The Chinese are awakening.