Advanced Level >> Themes & Topics >> Discussion starter. Information on Esperanto for students to read through as part of discussion about using English as the international language in the world.




Esperanto is a language designed to facilitate communication between people of different lands and cultures. It was first published in 1887 by Dr. L. L. Zamenhof (1859-1917) under the pseudonym "Dr. Esperanto", meaning "one who hopes", and this is the name that stuck as the name of the language itself.

Esperanto is considerably easier to learn than national languages, since its design is far simpler and more regular. Also, unlike national languages, Esperanto allows communication on an equal footing between people, with neither having the usual cultural advantage favouring a native speaker.

Esperanto's purpose is not to replace any other language, but to supplement them: Esperanto would be used as a neutral language when speaking with someone who doesn't know one's own language. The use of Esperanto would also protect minority languages, which would have a better chance of survival than in a world dominated by a few powerful languages.


For a native English speaker, we may estimate that Esperanto is about five times as easy to learn as Spanish or French, ten times as easy to learn as Russian, twenty times as easy to learn as Arabic or spoken Chinese, and infinitely easier to learn than Japanese. Many people find that they speak Esperanto better after a few months' study than a language they learned at school for several years.

A knowledge of Esperanto makes it much easier to learn other foreign languages, and there is some evidence that it is actually more efficient to learn Esperanto first, before learning other languages, rather than to study foreign languages directly. For example, one may become more fluent in French by first studying Esperanto for 6 months and then studying French for a year and a half, rather than studying French for two continuous years. The reason may be that Esperanto's regular grammar and word formation and flexible syntax makes it easier to understand other languages' grammar and rules.


About 75 % of Esperanto's vocabulary comes from Latin and Romance languages (especially French), about 20 % comes from Germanic languages (German and English), and the rest comes mainly from Slavic languages (Russian and Polish) and Greek (mostly scientific terms).

The words derived from Romance languages were chosen to be as recognizable as possible throughout the world. For example, the word "radio", although technically Romance, is now used internationally. Someone knowing only Russian and looking at a text in Esperanto would immediately recognize perhaps 40 % of the words, without even having studied the language.

Esperanto is phonetic: every word is pronounced exactly as it is spelled. There are no "silent" letters or exceptions.


Even more than its vocabulary, it is Esperanto's grammar and rules which makes it exceptionally easy. Unnecessary complications have been eliminated: there is no grammatical gender, the word order is relatively free, etc. The rules have also been simplified as much as possible: there is only one verb conjugation, all plurals are formed the same way, a prefix can be added to any word to change it to its opposite (good/bad, rich/poor, right/wrong), and so on. Thus, after perhaps 30 minutes' study, one can conjugate any verb in any tense. This is a tremendous simplification compared to national languages.

Esperanto's flexible word-order allows speakers from different language families to use the structures with which they are most familiar and still speak perfectly intelligible and grammatically correct Esperanto. This also makes Esperanto an excellent translator of such different languages as Chinese, Japanese, Latin, English and French.


This is a very common question, but nobody really knows the answer. The only way to determine accurately the number of people who speak Esperanto would be to conduct a world-wide census, and of course this has never been done.

However, Professor Sidney S. Culbert of the University of Washington, Seattle, USA, has done the most comprehensive survey on language use ever attempted. He has conducted interviews in dozens of countries around the world and tested for "professional proficiency", i.e. much more than just "hello, please, goodbye".

Based on this survey, Prof. Culbert concluded that Esperanto has about two million speakers worldwide. This puts it on a par with "minority" languages such as Lithuanian or Hebrew.

The results are also published in the World Almanac and Book of Facts.

[There's a lot of debate over how many people speak Esperanto. Sometimes there is a tendency to exaggerate the number of Esperanto speakers, or, on the contrary, to minimize it. I've seen numbers ranging from 100 000 to 8 million. Prof. Culbert's estimate has two advantages over any other I've seen:

1. The method is sound. Doing a world-wide survey is the only valid way to estimate the number of Esperanto speakers, but it's so difficult that Prof. Culbert is the only person who has ever attempted to do so, to my knowledge.

2. The study attempted to find out how many people speak *all* languages, not just Esperanto. We can see whether the results obtained for other languages make sense; if they do, then the result for Esperanto is probably as valid as any other.

In short, Prof. Culbert's estimate that two million people speak Esperanto around the world is the most accurate answer we're likely to get.

Some parents teach Esperanto (along with the local language) to their children; it is estimated that perhaps a thousand people speak Esperanto as a first language.


Here are some of the many different ways people use Esperanto:

- Esperanto is an ideal second language. Many adults want to learn another language, but don't have the time or energy to learn a national language.

- Correspondence. Write to people in a dozen countries without learning a dozen languages.

- Travel. Esperanto can be used to see the world. There are lists of Esperanto speakers willing to host other Esperantists in their own house or apartment for free.

- International understanding. You can't be friends with people if you can't talk to them! Esperanto helps break down the language barriers between countries.

- Meeting people from other countries, especially at conventions, or when Esperanto speakers from other countries come visiting. (It's also a good way to meet interesting people from your own country!)

- Joining the world. Esperanto is a way to treat everyone on our planet on the basis of complete equality, meeting them half-way. No more trying to communicate "uphill" for one side.

- Literature. The world's masterpieces have been translated to Esperanto, including the Kalevala and works by Garcia Marquez, Saikaku, Shakespeare, Gibran, Brecht, Tagore, Kawabata, Dante, and Mickiewicz. Many works have been translated to Esperanto which are not available in one's own language.

- Hobbies, especially collecting stamps or postcards, or discussing any subject with people in other countries.


Isn't English spoken world-wide already?

Interestingly, while English was spoken by about 10 % of the world's population in 1900, and by about 11 % in 1950, it is today spoken by about 8.5-9 %. The corollary is that, for better than 90 % of the world's population, it is *not* the de facto means of international communication.

English is a very difficult language to learn unless you've been immersed in it since birth. English spelling is said to be more difficult than any other language except Gaelic. English grammar, although it may be fairly simple, is riddled with exceptions. Verbs are very often irregular. Many people just aren't going to devote several years of effort to learn it!

English has gained its present stature because of the current economic and political power of English-speaking countries. In the past, every super-power has briefly seen its native tongue used internationally: France, Spain, Portugal, the Roman empire. In fact, one of the main reasons why Esperanto was never adopted by the League of Nations was that France blocked efforts to adopt it. At the time, French was "the international language", and France expected it to stay that way forever. They were proven wrong within twenty years.

Although many people all over the world study English and often think they speak it well, the number of people who can participate in a non-trivial conversation in English is very small outside English-speaking countries. Knowing English may be sufficient to survive as a tourist in many places, but not for more.

One Chinese Esperanto speaker described Esperanto as a linguistic handshake. When two people shake hands they both reach out halfway. When two people speak Esperanto they have both made the effort to learn a relatively easy, neutral language instead of one person making the huge effort to learn the other person's difficult national language and the other person making no effort at all except to correct his/her interlocutor's errors.

Esperanto isn't a real language, is it?

Yes, actually it is. You see, it's been used in all conceivable circumstances for over 100 years. Whatever you have to say, you can say it in Esperanto.

It's said that Umberto Eco, before he started supporting Esperanto, once said in class that Esperanto isn't a real language "because you can't make love in Esperanto". A girl later wrote to him and said, with some embarrassment, "I'm sorry, Professor, but it *is* possible to make love in Esperanto. I've done it."

Wouldn't any universal language break up into dialects?

(1) Esperanto is intended to be your *second* language, so it remains relatively intact: people primarily create slang, idioms, etc., in their native language.

(2) Esperanto is intended for cross-cultural use, therefore use of too many colloquialisms, etc., jeopardizes your chances of being understood (which is presumably your intention). This acts as a stabilizing influence on the language.

Regional dialects appear when people communicate mostly with their geographical neighbours and rarely with people from further away. Dialects tend to disappear when long-range communication dominates (as can be observed in many parts of the world after the introduction of radio and television). There is also the not insignificant observation that Esperanto has not formed any dialects in its more than one hundred years of existence.

Can an artificial language have its own literature?

Esperanto has just as much literature (original, not just translated) as any other language of a similar number of speakers. Just because you haven't heard of it doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

Have you heard of Auld, Szathmari, Kalocsay? Galloway, Gray, Kelman? None of them, probably, but you would probably not be as quick to claim that Scotland did not have a literary culture.

[Several tens of thousands of books have been published in Esperanto; the library of the British Esperanto Association has 30 000 volumes. There are about 100 periodicals of some importance, plus countless local bulletins and newsletters. At one point there was even a daily newspaper in Esperanto! I have no idea how they managed to distribute it to the subscribers in a timely manner.]

Isn't Esperanto "too European"?

The argument seems to always come down to the difference between agglutination and separate roots. Or "Eastern" and "Western" style languages, broadly speaking (I know it's an over-simplification). Some people think every concept needs its own root, others are happy to begin with some basic set and modify. Two incompatible systems of thinking.

I consider Esperanto to be a good compromise between "Western" root-based thinking and "Eastern" agglutinative thinking (again, very roughly speaking). Having a Hungarian background, I delight in the simple elegance of Esperanto word-building. [Unlike just about every other language in Europe, Hungarian is *not* Indo-European; it comes from a completely different language family. Thus, it is as unrelated to Esperanto as English is to Arabic, for example. -- Ed.]

I think there is something for everyone in Esperanto, no matter what your linguistic background, and that this is one major reason why it is the most successful of the auxiliary languages.

The other night I was having dinner here in the Detroit area with Koralo Chen, an Esperanto speaker from China whose home is very close to Hong Kong. I presented this objection to him. Koralo Chen replied that he had often heard this objection but that it made little sense to him. In his part of the world the major languages are completely unlike each other. Knowing Chinese doesn't help with learning how to speak Korean or Japanese, for instance.

I can see why this objection makes good theoretical sense to some Westerners, but it makes no sense at all to those Chinese who, like Koralo Chen, need not a theoretically perfect but very practical language to learn for international communication.

Should we create a language with words from all around the world?

The International Auxiliary Language Association (IALA) researched this point scientifically, and came up with the conclusion that while there are 6 170 languages in the world (not including dialects) AT THIS TIME, there is no evidence that a language with one word from each language would be more popular. Indeed it would be an unworkable hodgepodge.

This objection has been handled at length by Prof. Pierre Janton. In brief, there are two major facts to take into account. First of all, there are thousands of languages in the world and if Esperanto attempted to create its vocabulary from even 10% of them you would simply get a language which would be very difficult to learn for everybody instead of the real Esperanto which is relatively easy for all.

Secondly, the world-wide spread of Euro-American science, commerce, technology, geopolitics, entertainment, etc., has meant that many technical terms from "Western" languages have entered the vocabulary of many other languages too. So, in fact, the European basis for Esperanto's vocabulary is a lot more international than appears at first sight.

However, the whole argument is really irrelevant because the internationalism of Esperanto -- or of any other planned language -- cannot reside in its vocabulary for the reason just mentioned.

In fact, what makes Esperanto a truly "international" language (as distinct from a "world" language like English) is its extraordinary semantic flexibility which allows speakers from different language families to translate their own thought patterns directly into Esperanto and produce something which is perfectly intelligible and grammatically correct.

Isn't Esperanto hard for speakers of non-Indo-European languages?

Non-IE speakers thank you for your protective attitude, but they can and do fend for themselves, and Esperanto is very popular in Hungary, Estonia, Finland, Japan, China, Vietnam... The current [1995-1998] president of the Universal Esperanto Association is a Korean university professor of *Economics*. The most attended international meeting in *5000 years* of Chinese history was the 1986 Universal Congress of Esperanto in Beijing, being the largest both by the number of delegates and the number of countries represented. Premium

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