The Language Problem: is Esperanto worth it?

International communication has always been an issue in discussions of the future of the human race, but the situation is now becoming a crisis. A large amount of responsibility and hope is placed in the hands of the UN and the EU, and particularly with the recent threats of nuclear attack made by Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, the existence of peaceful unions seems all the more relevant. International cultural exchange is also becoming more necessary and beneficial for countries outside of politics; with constant progress being made in civil rights movements and tolerance, multiculturalism is one way to expose people from different backgrounds to each other’s cultures. However, if international harmony and multiculturalism are to succeed, do we need to speak the same language?

In the year 1887, a language emerged which attempted to answer these questions, but has also raised countless concerns amongst professors, politicians and polyglots ever since. Esperanto, invented by Dr. Ludwig L. Zamenhof, aspired to achieving the title of international auxiliary language, or ‘interlanguage’, by being the foundation of communication between civilisations and governments worldwide. On a non-political level, an ‘interlanguage’ can be understood as the language in which you would address a stranger in a foreign country. Many people in the English-speaking world wouldn’t hesitate in asking for directions in their own familiar tongue: English. This does pose an alluring alternative to learning an entire new language every time you visit a new country – but how effective is it as a means of communication, and should it take the position of the global language of peace?

Our westernised view of the superiority of English leaves us blind to hundreds of cultures, which we would have deeper access to if only we were able to speak their language

To say that English is the most effective way to talk to anyone in the world would be to drastically limit the horizons of the speaker. Of course, in the West, it seems as though English is spoken by everyone, just because that’s what we are exposed to most frequently. However, the lingua franca of the West has not always been English, after all; Latin and French have been widely spoken throughout Europe in the past. Moreover, our view of English as the dominant interlanguage worldwide is founded in assumption rather than proof, with Swahili, Arabic, Hindi and Mandarin far more common in Asia and Africa. Our westernised view of the superiority of English leaves us blind to hundreds of cultures, which we would have deeper access to if only we were able to speak their language.

This is where Esperanto comes into the picture. Large proportions of the global population are unable to communicate verbally with those in other countries, and it would be too time-consuming for everyone to learn everyone else’s language. And so a new, artificial language was developed, which could be learned by everyone, spoken by everyone, and, as the Universala Esperanto-Asocio states, could be a step towards “the solution of the language problem”. It was indeed a remarkable linguistic feat, to create a language that is “four times easier to learn” than others, according to Esperanto USA, but the existence of Esperanto has also attracted criticism.

Some argue that its constructed, ‘artificial’ nature diminishes its worth as a language, since it lacks the cultural history which is in rich supply in other, gradually-developed languages. But what does ‘artificial’ even mean when it comes to language? Most spoken languages have come about in a predominantly organic way, with words being created and falling out of use with advances in culture, technology and behaviour. Even then, linguistic developments are often less ‘organic’ than we assume them to be. In 1990, the French government altered certain words, such as changing ‘oignon’ to ‘ognon’, and the German orthography reform of 1996 made similar changes in grammar rules, including a specification of when to use the Eszett (ß). Governments actually exercise a surprising level of control over their respective languages’ developments. Maybe, then, in terms of its ‘constructed’ nature, Esperanto is not so different from other languages after all.

The argument made by Esperanto advocates is that it is intended to hold a little of each country’s linguistic characteristics

Still, these pre-existing languages are surely more significant, and more worth learning than Esperanto. If you can only really access a culture through speaking the people’s language, then what’s the point of communicating in a new language, which conveys neither speaker’s identity? The argument made by Esperanto advocates is that it is intended to hold a little of each country’s linguistic characteristics; it has a definite Spanish feel and some aspects of Germanic sounds. However, despite its successes in combining various commonly spoken languages, it ignores over 2000 Asian languages, a similar number of African languages, and the various different alphabet systems found all over the world. In South Asia, many languages are derived from Sanskrit as opposed to the Greek and Latin roots of Indo-European languages, and Chinese characters differ from the Latin alphabet so much that an artificial language which created a compromise between the two would be almost impossible to invent, and even more difficult for anyone to learn.

In short, Esperanto neglects languages outside of Europe: instead of allowing for easier communication on an international scale, it instead creates the opportunity to unify the Western world even further, with the exclusion of some of the largest Newly Industrialised Countries like China and India.

Another constructed interlanguage, Lingwa de Planeta, was invented in 2010 by a group led by Dmitri Ivanov, who attempted to offer a more international alternative. This language was based on the most widely spoken in the world at the time, and takes many words directly from these languages – ‘fish’ from English, ‘gamba’ from Italian, ‘lisan’ from Arabic and ‘chi’ from Chinese. At least some words will be familiar to most people on Earth, but the language is essentially impossible to get to know; most of the words sound completely different to each other. So, unlike Esperanto, Lingwa de Planeta fails in its potential for being globally accessible, because it isn’t easy to learn. This is an obvious side-effect of creating a language that mixes Portuguese with Hindi and Russian, but perhaps acts as proof that an ideal interlanguage is entirely impossible. Perhaps our global culture is just too varied to be compressed into one language?

It seems that many learners are undertaking the task more as an intellectual exercise

So, is Esperanto working? Are people learning it, and possibly more importantly, are people using it? Websites supporting Esperanto, such as Esperanto USA, claim that “millions” of people have learned it, and it is spoken by “thousands”. Dramatic statements like these may help to promote the spread of the language, but whether they represent reality is difficult to tell. Hungary, Finland, Japan and China, among others, have shown interest in taking up Esperanto, representing a willing enthusiasm to put this interlanguage to use. And yet, every website encouraging the use of Esperanto is, ironically, in English. It seems that many learners are undertaking the task more as an intellectual exercise, and less as a potentially useful skill to have; people are learning Esperanto in the same way that they might study Latin grammar.

The concept of Esperanto represents the culture of the moment: an outward-looking, explorative political and social environment in which travel and verbal exchange are becoming increasingly necessary and popular. However, it seems that its success may not have a place in the world’s future, with the number of Chinese and English speakers continuing to rise worldwide. A free Esperanto course was launched on Duolingo in 2015 and now has over one million learners, but it’s still nothing compared to the 98.5 million learners of Spanish using the website. Unfortunately, the reality of Esperanto still presents a view of multiculturalism that not only forgets the initial purpose behind cultural exchange as an interlanguage, but is also undeniably Eurocentric. The future of international communication, with the avoidance of the supremacy of English, must therefore rely on people’s enthusiasm and persistence in learning many languages of many countries; only this will make cultural and political exchange thoroughly possible, and mutually fulfilling.