I’ve always been interested in languages. It’s probably the single thing that most powerfully demonstrates human diversity and represents the gateway to understanding the world better. If there is one free skill I’d love to have for no effort in return, it would be fluency in one or more other languages. I am not fluent in anything other than English, sadly, though at school I studied Gaelic until second year (which was compulsory), German to Standard Grade and French to Higher, and narrowly chose not to do languages at university alongside Politics.
That said, I’ve always practised my French and German wherever possible, be it when travelling, hosting couchsurfers, or meeting or visiting French- or German-speaking friends. I’ve been complemented a number of times on my enthusiastic but faltering grasp of both, and I have been told that I’d be just a few months’ immersion away from fluency in either.
Yet something always niggled at the back of my mind regarding French and, especially, German: a dissatisfaction with unnecessary complexities. Such as rules that were broken so often as to be meaningless, complex rules of grammar that seemed to erect more barriers to effective communication than bridges, and the realisation that French and German suffered from geographical “weak spots” meaning their value as international languages was questionable.
And don’t get me started on gender and cases. I never understood quite why a noun needed to be masculine or feminine, or why adjectives or the word for “the” should change according to their place in the sentence. That’s one great thing about English, where we’ve more or less done away with these grammatical quirks that have their root – so to speak – in Latin.
Of course, English is not free of criticism on this front. It’s a widely-spoken and beautifully expressive language, yet one full of inconsistencies and absurd rules. Everything from the multiple ways of pronouncing “ough” to our odd plural rules (mice and men, but not hice and cen, for instance) presents a language that must seem immensely complicated to new learners.
And it’s not even as if English is the truly international language many claim it to be. Languages are a key tool for international travel and exploring other cultures, yet if you spoke only English I reckon you’d struggle somewhat across vast swathes of Russia, China, Latin America and the Arab-speaking world, four parts of the globe that will only become more important to us as they develop economically.
Of course, if you are a polyglot then you’re sorted. For instance, fluency in the six official languages of the United Nations – English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese and Arabic – will probably see you cover most of the planet with ease. But I daresay such an achievement would require a true gift for languages that few of us possess. And that’s the point that bugged me with French and German – why should you have to be “good at languages” to be good at languages?
This is where Esperanto comes in.
Created by a Polish doctor as an international auxiliary language in the late nineteenth century, Esperanto was designed to be a simple, easy and effective means of communication between different peoples, and I have been aware of its exstence for years. I possess a “Teach Yourself Esperanto” book I bought many years ago, but cannot remember where or when, and to be honest it has been virtually untouched as long as I have had it, largely due to a lack of motivation.
But the basic principle of the language – simplicity – has always appealed. I have been thinking a lot recently about languages, contemplating improving my French or German or else starting to learn a new one. Last month we went to France on holiday and on a whim I dusted down “Teach Yourself Esperanto” and took it with me.
Thanks to the freedom of a relatively lazy holiday, I made swift and satisfying progress. I then reinforced my knowledge upon my return with the multilingual Esperanto learning website lernu.net. I also made contact with other speakers, and this past Saturday I went to Glasgow for a study day organised by the Scottish Esperanto Association.
Meeting other speakers was always going to be a key litmus test for me. It would move the language from the page or computer screen into real live face to face interaction, and transform it from an abstract and solitary interest into a potentially living, dynamic means of communication. Would using Esperanto with other speakers for the very first time turn me from a fleeting enquirer to committed enthusiast?
The answer was an emphatic yes. Why? Why was I interested to start with, why did I enjoy getting stuck into it, and why am I going to stick at it?
The main answer to all those questions is that basic principle, simplicity. On a two week holiday I’d probably spent an average of an hour a day on the language, yet I’d managed in that time to learn the basic rules and concepts plus a modest, functional amount of vocabulary. In fact, doing some rough sums in my head I reckon I gained as much Esperanto in those dozen or so hours as the amount of French I knew after a year of secondary school. This echoes with some figures I’d read previously, that it takes a native English speaker ten times longer to learn another European language than Esperanto, and many more times longer to learn an unrelated language like Chinese.
This simplicity is based on the logical way in which the language was designed. There are no irregular verbs or exceptions to any grammatical rule, phonetics and spelling are simple, word order doesn’t matter that much, and patterns and consistency abound in every feature of the language. That makes for an incredibly satisfying learning experience, because when you learn a rule you know you’ll never be tripped up later by exceptions or quirks, and can apply the rules without limits, rapidly expanding your vocabulary and capability.
It helps, furthermore, that Esperanto’s vocabulary draws very heavily on that of Romance and Germanic languages, not least Latin, meaning that on first glance the language already feels somewhat familiar. You don’t need much language talent to be able to guess what “la hundo estas en la aŭto” means.
One obvious flaw of Esperanto is that there are not many speakers – the estimated two or three million speakers are scattered thinly and evenly throughout the world. But that’s not a barrier in an age of global travel and internet communication, and in any case it makes existing speakers all the more welcoming and supportive to new speakers, as I found to my delight at the study day on Saturday. Thanks to them, I already feel a part of a community.
In a relatively short space of time, Esperanto is, unlike any other language I’ve encountered, already proving a fun adventure. I might just blog about it – and perhaps even in it – as I go.