What is Esperanto?
Briefly stated – a fully functioning language.
First published in 1887, Esperanto was designed to enable people with different languages to communicate effectively while still retaining their own languages and cultural identities. It was created by a Polish eye-doctor, Zamenhof, in an area, part of Russia at the time, where people with a mixture of backgrounds lived and worked.
In Warsaw, Zamenhof published a small textbook (in Russian), setting out the rules and advice on how to learn it. The language soon gathered a following, and the first international Esperanto conference was held in France in 1905; Zamenhof attended.
I’ve heard Esperanto is easy to learn – is that true?
Any language requires a certain amount of study and perseverance, of course, in order to learn it to an effective standard of basic communication. But yes, in comparison with the time required to learn other languages you can achieve that level quicker and more easily in learning Esperanto.
The fact that Esperanto has a compact set of fixed grammatical rules, regular verb endings, and phonetic pronunciation and spelling means that the problems of gender, declension and conjugation, not to mention irregular spelling and grammar, are considerably less daunting in Esperanto than they are in other languages.
Esperanto is sometimes called ‘an international language’ – why?
The label arises in part from its original aim to allow people to communicate easily and effectively across national and linguistic boundaries, and in part from its composition.
Vocabulary, for example, is based on Romance, Germanic and Slavic word roots, and people whose first languages carry some of these ancestors may well recognise many of the words – for example, an English speaker may recognise ‘kato’ which sounds like the English ‘cat’, and ‘hundo’ which is similar to the English ‘hound’; ‘arbo’ tree, connects to the words ‘arboreal’ and ‘arboretum’. Many of the sounds of the letters in the Esperanto alphabet are familiar to a large number of people, too.
The result is that this mix of languages ‘borrowed’ from many other languages makes Esperanto unique as an introductory language to the whole process of language learning, and – not only that – this makes it a very beautiful and practical language in its own right.
Why learn Esperanto – why not just learn English?
Any language is good to learn; the more the merrier. Learning languages has a cumulative effect and the spin-offs gained from learning one – the increased awareness of ‘language’ and of ‘how to learn a language’ – are of enormous benefit when learning subsequent languages.
Esperanto, then, is no better or worse a language to learn for whatever reason than any of the other ones on offer. It simply offers its own set of benefits, just as all languages do.
Among these we can count the ones mentioned above – you can reach a basic standard of communication in a relatively short time; and because of its composition, if you learn with a critical eye, Esperanto can prove a good foundation for learning other languages.
Add to these the fact that you gain the benefit of a unique ‘multinational, multicultural, multilingual’ culture which includes tens of thousands of publications, both translated and original – books, magazines, music and poetry from a very wide range of languages. By accessing these, you also explore all those different cultures themselves. The global network of Esperanto speakers means you have access to up-to-date news from ordinary people who have experienced events first-hand – the local perspective.
Last but certainly not least – it’s actually fun and rewarding to learn.
Can I teach it to children?
Ah, yes, children love to manipulate the language, to use its unique word-building system to create new words and to ‘play’. Because of its simplicity and regularity, they progress quickly and gain an excellent insight into how languages and grammar work – a solid basis for further language learning. And if you want to delve into the origins of the vocabulary with them, you give them a peep into many different languages.
Prof. Humphrey Tonkin, president of ESF, gifted a copy of the first Polish edition of Zamenhof’s textbook to the University of Princeton’s Library. English edition, above, left.
rapida fast (adjective)
rapide quickly (adverb)
rapidi to hurry (infinitive)
rapido speed (noun)
rapidu! Hurry up! (imperative)
rapidega very fast/hurried (adjective)
rapidulo someone in a hurry (noun)
rapidete quite quickly (adverb)
malrapidi to dawdle (infinitive)
And if you’d like to find out more about the background to the Esperanto movement, including its history, linguistics, and relevant global language studies, you couldn’t do better than read this excellent introduction by Asya Pereltsvaig
Supported by ESF, a team from the University of Manchester carried out an evaluation of a research project in primary schools in England.
How can I find out more?
Lernu! is a multilingual website website that ESF continues to support. It hosts a range of courses at different levels, with information, forums, and a media library. Free and unlimited access.
Try duolingo. They say ‘Learn Esperanto in just five minutes a day. For free’. A popular way to learn, and available in many different site languages.
And when you’ve progressed a little bit, take a look at UEA Facila, which hosts articles written in beginner Esperanto – to keep you in touch with all that is going on in the Esperanto Community. Some of them are recorded, too, so you can listen to fluent speech. All the articles use only base words found in the list of easy words. If any other words are used, their use is explained. There are short films to watch, too.
Working on behalf of Esperantic Studies Foundation and the Centre for Research and Documentation on World Language Problems.