What is Esperanto?
Esperanto is an auxiliary language or constructed language, designed by a man named Ludovik Lazar Zamenhof in the late 1800s. He lived in a region with several ethnic groups, each with its own language, and observed the mistrust, anger, and fear that was founded on the people's basic inability to simply understand one another. In 1887, he published a book, Unua Libro (A First Book) under the pseudonym "Doktoro Esperanto" (Doctor One-Who-Hopes). The word "Esperanto" stuck as the name for the new language.
Zamenhof intended Esperanto to be a second language for everyone, so Esperanto is designed from the ground up to be easy to learn. Even national languages that are considered easy to learn, such as Spanish, still require about 600 hours of study and immersion to master the basics. Esperanto, on average, requires about 100 hours for basic mastery.
Why Esperanto? Why not English, or Spanish? (or French? or Russian? or Chinese?)
A common complaint is that "English is already the international language", but if you actually travel around the world, you'll probably have experienced what we call "English by the script": you can communicate well with many people as long as you keep to specific topics, such as where to find things, how to order things, and the cost of things, because people around the world spend years memorizing those specific scripts.
However, if you really want to talk with people about different ideas — to ask questions about their culture or their own personal history, to discuss abstract topics such as art or politics — you'll find that it's usually just about impossible. Because English is hard — it is one of the hardest languages to learn. Anyone who's tried to learn a second language knows that getting to the point where you can freely talk about anything you want is really, really hard. So people generally don't really talk about much beyond basic needs.
Then you get into resentment or outright refusal to learn a specific national language: often, people don't like the ideology or history associated with that language — it's why the United Nations doesn't have a single "working language", but instead 6: because people feel that accepting a single language as a common language means that you have to accept all of the ideology, culture, and history that goes with that language.
We think this is terrible. Instead of forcing most people to learn a single national language, why not ask everyone to learn a common second language — one that's easy to learn and that doesn't come with all of that emotional cultural baggage?
As a basis for further language study
As an introduction to language study, Esperanto is ideal. Each word is "grammar coded" and indicates its function in a sentence by its very structure; for example, all nouns end in "o" (such as "hundo" for "dog" or "kato" for "cat"), so when you see a word in a sentence that ends with an "-o", you automatically know that you're dealing with a noun. Likewise, all adjectives end in "-a", all adverbs in "-e", and so forth.
Additionally, Esperanto has an awesome feature in the form of suffixes — words that you add onto basic root words to form additional meanings. For example, in English, the word for an immature dog is "puppy" and the word for an immature cat is "kitten", so to know these four concepts (adult dog, adult cat, immature dog, immature cat) you need to memorize four different words. The suffix for an immature creature is "-ido". So to get puppy, you say "hundido", and for kitten, it's "katido". And you also now know the word for any baby animal once you know the root word for that animal: leonido, bovido, ŝafido (lion cub, calf, lamb, respectively). With Esperanto, once you have memorized the 9 standard suffixes, all you need to learn is one root word and you automatically get 9 additional concepts.
This means that people who are learning Esperanto are much more quickly able to get past the boring part of language learning (memorizing vocabulary) and can speed right into the fun part of language (being able to talk, play, write poetry or prose, sing, crack jokes, etc.) in much less time then they'd have to spend on a national language to be able to get to that point.
Check out this awesome TED talk by Tim Morley, "Learn Esperanto First", to see how this works for elementary children, and the benefits children get in using their own first language in terms of reading and grammar comprehension:
- Wikipedia article on Esperanto
- Lernu.net - one of the best online tools for learning Esperanto
- Esperanto USA - The United States' main Esperanto association
Come meet an Esperantist at the monthly meeting at The LivingRoom Coffeehouse (5900 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego, 92215). If you've got questions, want to get started in learning Esperanto, or just want to come and work on your Esperanto conversation, stop on by! The event calendar lists the dates and times for upcoming meetings, and for alternate locations for special meeting events. You can also check out our Facebook page for news & info.