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  • Destiny Yarbro

Why Esperanto? The reality of language power dynamics and the need for a neutral world language

Since 2019, I have been studying Esperanto (largely through Duolingo, but also through YouTube channels, tutoring sites, reading Harry Potter and The Book of Mormon, etc.)

I did not know Esperanto existed until a few years ago when I presented at the Women In Language conference. Ludwik Zamenhof created this planned language in 1873. He recognized that a single language would soon take the lead in international discourse (I'm looking at you, English...) and felt it would be best to have a neutral language that is easy-to-learn: phonetic, rule-following, intuitive.

Esperanto was thought to have reached its peak in the early 20th century but in the last ten years has gained incredible momentum with over over 2 million speakers worldwide according to Ethnologue and two generations of native speakers.

The arguments for Esperanto, in my mind, are plentiful. But in case you are wondering why an international language is needed, here are my thoughts:

Power Dynamics of Language

The reality is, when I step into a room of people from countries around the world, the power dynamics may very likely shift in my favor because I am a native English speaker. I have done nothing to deserve this place of power, but because I happened to be born in an English-speaking country, I have more resources at my disposal because I know the lingua franca in that room. (Even in the United Nations, there are only 6 official languages and each person in the room has to learn at least one of them to have any influence in international politics.)

Now what would the same room of people from around the world look like if Esperanto was the common language?

Importance of a Neutral Language

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine shared a book with me: Esperanto and its rivals: the struggle for an international language by Roberto Garvía Soto. I spent my time reading about various faith groups who have adopted Esperanto and spent an hour or two exploring their websites.

In my studies, I came across an account of a gathering of international Esperantists many years ago. Included in the group were speakers from both from Israel and Palestine. At the end of the conference, these Esperantists spoke of the open and uplifting conversations they were able to have with each other because they were speaking in a neutral language. Esperanto was a language that was not loaded with generations of violent history, innuendos, and...well...baggage.

Remember the Korean pilots in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers? Many languages have inherent hierarchal terminology; referred to as "levels of deference", "levels of speech," or "mitigated speech." The strict formalities between classes inhibited Korean co-pilots from being able to inform their superiors of dangerous conditions for flying. As a direct result, seven (!!) planes crashed over the course of twenty years (17 times the number of United Airlines crashes over the same period). It was only after Korean pilots were instructed to use a different language (in this case, English) were the pilots able to bypass hierarchal language, communicate clearly and openly with each other, and prevent future crashes.

Esperanto's Goal

I think it is important to clarify that it is not Esperanto's goal to become the only language used in the world. It was created to become a language of connection when global citizens come together.

(In fact, I have yet to meet an Esperantist who does not also speak many other languages.)

Esperanto is not perfect, of course, but its pros largely outweigh its cons:

1. Esperanto is easy-to-learn, easy-to-speak, and easy-to-understand. (Example 1: Verb conjugations are simple: add the suffix -as to a verb to make it present tense, -os to make it future tense, -is to make it past tense. Example 2: Nouns always end in -o, adjectives always end in -a, adverbs always end in -e.)

2. Esperanto, while "artificial" in the sense that it does not have a cultural heritage, is a neutral language for precisely this reason and can be used in high-pressure conversations (like the Israeli and Palestinian speakers above). It can be an open and tolerant language for direct communication between peoples and culture in this age of globalization.

3. The Esperantist community is passionately committed to translation and thus thousands of books, poems, films, and Wikipedia articles have been translated and made available (often, for free).

4. Esperanto, while largely based on European languages, is still relatively easy to pick up for speakers outside of Europe. There is a large Esperanto following in China and a popular foreign language choice offered in many Asian schools. As one Chinese Esperantist points out, “If China continues to grow, there will likely be a clash between the Chinese and English languages. When that happens, a compromise will be necessary; that’s when Esperanto could be useful.”

5. Esperanto is useful as a linguistic springboard. For students who are learning their first non-primary language, Esperanto provides a way for children to become familiar with the concept of a foreign language. "To immediately learn a complicated language? Not everyone is capable of that" says Katalin Kovats, a renowned advocate for Esperanto courses in elementary schools. "For children it is extremely important to first learn an easy language... If you psychologically have a huge success in the first, easier language...that success gives courage to learn the next one."

Why Does Esperanto Work

A common working language that every global citizen can learn relatively quickly allows us all to meet on common ground and nurture international discourse without the skewed power dynamics, hierarchical terminology, and loaded history inherent in our primary languages. Esperanto may be, in fact, the best option for this international bridging language.


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