In a five-part blog series I am proposing to answer the question: Is English the ultimate global language? Read part 1 to this blog series if you’ve missed it.
Part 2: Esperanto – a universal language?
There are somewhere between 3000 and 6000 languages spoken worldwide. Whilst a language makes the individuals that speak it unique, it also divides them from those who do not understand the same language. Through language, we identify our own place within a social and cultural order. But what happens when someone steps out of their own ‘order’ and attempts to interact with another one? Whose language do they use? How do they decide? The answer may seem simple now – English. But how exactly did English – reputedly not the easiest language to learn – become the universal language of the world, if that is really what it is? It wasn’t always that way.
There have been many attempts to create universal language, from scratch. Esperanto, the most successful of all (thus far), was created in 1877 by Ludovic Zamenhof, who grew up in multi–language environment. He was born in Russian Poland into a Jewish family, at a time of conflict. His father was a teacher of languages and he was brought up speaking at least four different languages. All of these elements influenced the creation of Esperanto, and pushed Zamenhof’s determination to change the way people from different language backgrounds communicate. “Ludovic’s language could not itself abolish hatred; but it was something useful and harmless that might make a contribution to human understanding.” – Marjorie Boulton (from, the book, Zamenhof: Creator of Esperanto).
Esperanto was created as an easy–to–learn language, as well as being politically neutral. It had a set of simple rules including; every word is read as it is written and the accent is always on the penultimate syllable. “Zamenhof outlined the three chief problems that had to be solved; first, such a language must be very easy to learn; secondly, it must be possible to use it at once for international communication; and thirdly, the inventor had to find some means of conquering the indifference of the world and inducing people in large numbers to use the language as a living language.”
Esperanto was meant to “foster peace and international understanding between people with different regional/national languages” (source: wikipedia) which, to some extent, Zamenhof’s language did do. But more still needs to be done for this to really have an impact – starting with people simply learning the language and teaching it to others. Perhaps this is happening, but progress is slow – far slower than English. There are no precise figures for how many Esperanto speakers there are worldwide, different sources state numbers ranging from 100,000 to 2 million. (The number of native English speakers alone is more than 350 million– not taking into account English as a secondary language). Esperanto is still seen as an alternative or addition to the increasing use of English across the world, offering a language that is easier to learn. But as it is also less widely understood, could Esperanto ever be a competitor for the English language?
Interestingly, one of the books that I am currently working on in the studio features an article about Esperanto, with exercises based on the text – it is clearly not dead or forgotten just yet! Although being used in an ELT book means that Esperanto, as a subject matter, is actually being used to aid students in the learning of English. Not at all what Zamenhof envisioned over 130 years ago.
Esperanto was meant primarily as a second language, but with few speakers worldwide when you compare it to other second languages, such as English, what benefits does Esperanto actually have?
Find out in Part 3 next week.