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Esperanto – A Useless Language?

Greetings, dear Langfocus readers and random arrivals from Google search! Long time no post! I have been so focused on the Langfocus Youtube channel and improving my video production skills that I have neglected to post here for the past several months. But it`s time I change that, and try to increase the activity on this blog and website.

What have I been up to? If you follow my Youtubechannel then you might be aware that I began studying Esperanto around the beginning of August, using little more than the Duolingo website and iPhone app, and a free Esperanto-English dictionary app. I also watched some Youtube videos, but basically it was 90% Duolingo.

Esperanto?!

Esperanto Dr. LL ZamenhoffIf you`re wondering what Esperanto is, the video above (featuring me) should give you some decent info. But I know that some of you cultured folks prefer the written word, so let me explain it here as well.  Esperanto is a constructed languagewhat some people might call an “artificial language” or “man-made language”. It is not a language that naturally arose from any culture or community, it was the brainchild of a man named Dr. L.L. Zamenhoff, who intentionally created the language to be as simple and easy-to-learn as possible. His dream was that the language would serve as a politically and culturally neutral “lingvo internacia” (international language) and unify all peoples of the world. The name Esperanto means “hopeful one”, and Dr. Zamenhoff sure did hope that his dream would come true.

But it didn`t. Esperanto is indeed a very simple language for speakers of most European languages to learn, and quite straightforward for speakers of unrelated languages as well. But it has not become the international language and is not widely spoken, despite the claims of Esperanto enthusiasts that the language has 2 million speakers around the world. I repeated the figure in my video above, but now when I think about it – there is no way the number is anywhere near that high. All you have to do is search Youtube for content in Esperanto and you will see how limited the selection is. You will never walk down the street and hear two people speaking Esperanto.

Esperanto is a hobby language. Esperantists hate hearing that, because they too are “ones that hope”. They dream of being the pioneers of the coming Esperanto revolution. But as it stands, Esperanto is only used amongst a group of passionate hobbyists, who network through internet forums and social media, and have Esperanto language meetups and conferences where they have opportunities to network and use the language in person.

pasporta servo - couchsurfing in EsperantoWhen someone says that Esperanto is useless with no real practical use outside of organized meetings, Esperantists will often point to their Pasporta Servo (“Passport Service”) system, which is essentially a kind of Couch Surfing for Esperanto speakers. Anyone can volunteer to serve as a host and unofficial tour guide for Esperanto-speaking visitors to their country, and the hosts` information is published in a guide through which travelers can contact them. That sounds kind of cool, and would be a good opportunity to meet locals while traveling – which always makes for a great experience. But — I can get that through Couch Surfing. The other benefit of Pasporta Servo is to practice Esperanto, which it is great for.  But I think that actually supports the argument that Esperanto is useless for practical purposes. Esperanto does not enable international friendship and travel; rather, international friendship and travel, by means of the Pasporta Serva, enable Esperanto. I`ve met lots of people in person who I initially met online – as far back as 1997, years before I had even heard of Esperanto. You don`t need Esperanto to make international connections in the days of the internet.

Not Completely Useless

Now that I have (maybe irreversibly) made all Esperantists hate my guts, it`s time I acknowledge the ways that Esperanto is useful.

Up above it may have seemed like I was bashing Esperanto, but really I just don`t want anyone to waste their time studying it for the wrong reasons. If they are imagining that Esperanto is a language that they can hear spoken on the street and use to strike up a conversation with someone, then I want them to know that it will never happen — unless they attend an organized meetup. But hobby groups and organized meetups are not a bad thing, and in fact having a somewhat uncommon hobby can serve as a uniting factor and immediately break the ice between people who might otherwise never become friends. So while I believe that Esperanto is mainly a hobby language, I still think that can be meaningful for people. For some people, it becomes the most joyous part of their lives.

Esperanto Can Improve Your Ability to Learn Other Languages

On top of the joys of belonging to a tightly-knit tribe of enthusiasts, Esperanto can also help you in your studies of other languages. Esperanto is a very straightforward language with minimal rules, very regularized patterns, and almost no exceptions. For example, all nouns end in “o”, all adjectives end in “a”, and all adverbs end in “e”. For verbs, present tense ends in “as”, past tense ends in “is”, and future ends in “os”. So let`s take the root word “am” meaning love and make a few words:

To love (verb): amas/amas/amos

Love/affection (noun): amo

Fond of (adjective): ama

Lovingly/fondly (adverb): ame

From the list above you can see that whatever vocabulary you learn in Esperanto is immediately expandable because you can easily deduce the root word, and change the affixes to make different words using the same root. There are other more advanced affixes of course, but they are also very standardized and straightforward.

For someone who has never learned a language before, learning Esperanto can make you extremely aware of the way words are constructed; the different grammatical functions that words perform and how they fit into sentences; and how to build a large vocabulary through learning families of related words that have the same root. Most new language learners approach this in a very haphazard way, but by learning Esperanto you can become more systematic in the way you approach a language.

Another way that Esperanto can help you is by introducing you to a huge amount of vocabulary that will help you if you plant to learn a Romance language or a Germanic language. The majority of Esperanto vocabulary (meaning the word roots) seems to come from Latin or the Romance languages that descended from it, with some Germanic vocabulary and a smaller amount of Slavic vocabulary and Greek vocabulary.

I don`t know exactly how Dr. Zamenhoff selected Esperanto root vocabulary, but it seems that he chose roots that would be recognizable to speakers of as many European languages as possible. The result is that you learn a core of important vocabulary that will absolutely help you if you plan to learn a Romance language, and will also help you if you plan to learn a Germanic. Though I can say that most emphatically for the Romance languages.

Take the root I gave you above: am (love). What is the noun for “love” in French? Amour. In Spanish? Amor. In Italian, Amare. In Portuguese? Ame. Of course the suffixes are different, but if you already know the Esperanto root word, the new word instantly has a connection to something you already know — and that is exactly how we remember things.

I am quite familiar with the  French language, but after studying Esperanto for a couple of months, I can understand more Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese than before without having ever studied them. I`m hearing a lot more root words that I recognize from Esperanto, from French, or from both. I can`t converse in those languages because I have never studied them (yet!) but I can partly understand what they`re saying — at least noticably more than before. And when reading those languages, I definitely understand more than I used to.

The Main Benefits For Me

I started to learn Esperanto as an experiment, because I had always wondered what it would be like, and also because I wanted to try out Duolingo with a new language and I thought “Why not Esperanto?”  I have no real interest in the Esperanto dream, or in participating much in the Esperanto community. I do, however, have a dream of one day being proficient in Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese in addition to my French. So, I look at Esperanto as a kind of baby Romance language that can quickly teach me a lot of the common vocabulary of those languages.

I could just skip Esperanto and focus on genuine Romance languages instead, but Esperanto is so streamlined that you never get stuck trying to figure out the gender of a noun or how to conjugate a verb. That means you`re constantly progressing and building your vocabulary, rather than getting slowed down by details. So, no matter which Romance language I choose next, having an expansive Esperanto vocabulary (that I gained relatively quickly) will be a big help. It`s already helping with my passive skills.

So even though I intended to give up Esperanto after testing out Duolingo, I will continue to stick with it as a side project, and spend around 20 minutes a day reading it or using flashcards to build vocabulary. Esperanto is not a hobby for me, it`s a way to help me achieve goals that are more important to me than Esperanto.

I`m not an Esperantist, but I think Dr. Zamenhoff created something quite amazing.

  • Kalynn

    Hi! Just a small correction- The noun for “love” in Portuguese is actually the same as Spanish. 🙂 (amor)

  • LangFocus

    Yes, a man having affairs! 😀

  • LangFocus

    I think I made my Esperanto video after a month or 5 weeks of studying. I did practice what I was going to say, so my normal speech would be less smooth than in the video. I haven’t been using Esperanto for a few months though, so my spoken fluency has probably receded a bit.

  • Chiradeep Roy

    The Esperanto dream is an interesting movement, but in no way is it ‘neutral’ since I am sure that it barely contains any vocabulary of Indic, Arabic or East Asian origin (if it does, then I apologise and stand corrected).

  • Gabriele Trovato

    This article is very interesting, bravo! 🙂 Just a correction: in italian “amare” is a verb and means “to love”, the noun “love” is, instead, “amore”.

  • Herman Deceŭninck

    ‘businessman’ estas ‘komercisto’, ne ‘aferisto’ -> 🙂

  • David Fried

    Paul,

    I have no particular interest in learning Esperanto, but I have a question. It seems to me that Zamenhof set out to eliminate the redundancy that is a feature of all natural languages. One common form of redundancy is agreement, for example of nouns with their adjectives. Another is using pronouns where the conjugation of verbs makes them strictly unnecessary (as you know, this is characteristic of modern spoken Hebrew.)

    My impression is that the many redundancies of spoken language are almost essential to verbal comprehension, and also make possible a lot of syntactic variation which in turns gives color and emphasis to spoken language. Have you seen Esperanto criticized in these terms? Do you think the lack of redundancy actually makes it harder to understand?

    BTW, your spoken Hebrew is pretty amazing, although with a few mistakes. “Yiddish speakers” are idiomatically “dovrei Yiddish,” not “mdabrei Yiddish.” And having learned Hebrew in Israel many years ago, I’ve been learning Yiddish for a couple of years. If you do this the Yiddish substrate of modern spoken Hebrew becomes completely obvious in a way it was not before.

    Also, when people speak of the miracle of the Hebrew revival, they rarely take into account the Hebrew vocabulary of 3,000+ words that every Yiddish speaker starts with. As you may know, this vocabulary covers not only nouns, but verbs, adjectives,adverbs and even prepositions. For example, both “k’dai” (worthwhile) and “k’dei” (in order to) are good Yiddsh, as is “maskim zayn” (to agree.) The Hebrew vocabulary in Yiddish is by no means predominantly religious. An example: The Pale of Settlement in which the Jews lived in Eastern Europe was called, in Yiddish, the “Tkhum moyshev,” or in Israel Hebrew t’chum moshav,” the “limits of settlement.” Holocaust survivors are the “sheyris ha-pleyte,” or “Sh’arit ha-pleitah,” the “surviving remnant” (OK, that’s a Biblical phrase.) That’s four Hebrew words whose roots are now available to the learner as a basis for learning many more words. Think l’hishaer (to remain) or miflat (shelter) or p’litim (refugees). And the vocabulary of modern spoken Hebrew is often based on the meaning of the Hebrew words as they were borrowed into Yiddish. So a “terutz” in modern Hebrew is an (unlikely or dumb) excuse, from the Yiddish teyretz, although the root Hebrew meaning is a “proof text.”

    My feeling, as I study literary Yiddish, is that I am jumping within every sentence from one Hebrew “steppingstone” to another-generally at least two per sentence. What’s in between is German–not all that hard for an English speaker.

    Keep up the good work!

  • Erik Alfkin

    You say it like it’s a bad thing to be labeled a hobby 🙂

    Rather than being successful as an international language (which, IMO would probably destroy its regularity as the well-intentioned attempted to “fix” it), I agree with an idea I’ve seen espoused elsewhere, namely that it’s a great tool for introducing kids to language learning *and* for teaching grammar. As someone who slept through all those grammar-dissecting classes in his youth, Esperanto was key in helping me really grasp all those grammatical concepts that can be so helpful when learning other languages.

  • William Jefferson Slade

    In Israeli Hebrew, a possible reason pronouns are used where they aren’t necessary is that in the present tense they ARE necessary, since the present-tense verb (derived from the old Semitic active participle) shows only gender and number, but not person. Interestingly, useless pronouns occur in Russian also, and in that case it is the PAST tense which does not show person.

  • Carlos H. Castillo

    un homme d’affairs, c’est quoi le problème ?

  • There is some agreement of nouns with their adjectives in Esperanto actually.
    For instance, “la libro estas bona”, “mi skribas la bonan libron”: as you see, the accusative case was reflected on the adjective as well.

  • Ragnar Yggdrasil

    I looked into this language and think IDO would be a better choice to gravitate to. It is far easer to learn and more regular.The only problem is the current number of speakers.BUT if a few 100 took to it it would take offf quickly.

  • Anton Rabin

    The reason I’m learning Esperanto is because it’s the fastest way to break the monolingual barrier and the fastest language you can truly become fluent in which has some decent value to it. And I mean fluency to the point where your proficiency at least matches your primary language, because of how easy it is to learn.

  • James

    Can you do a Language Profile video for Esperanto?