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Esperanto, an innovative way towards multilingualism

Magali von Blottnitz

Esperanto Association of Southern Africa, South Africa

The international language Esperanto stands in a peculiar relationship to the themes of this conference: identity and creativity.

Structurally, Esperanto works on a building block principle. Concepts can be expressed according to various images. This gives much space not only to the speaker’s creativity, but also to the most diverse cultural preferences. As such, the language respects its speakers’ identities and opens us to a variety of cultures.

Esperanto is also beneficial for the learning of other languages. Based on LW Fillmore’s model, the language learning process can be viewed as a combination of “social” and “intellectual” strategies. Esperanto supports both: “intellectually”, the learner acquires a complete and transparent linguistic system; “socially”, Esperanto gives opportunities for interaction with speakers of other languages, and for intercultural awareness. Thus, children learning Esperanto will have the benefit of a useful language as well as their way paved to multilingualism.

Key words
Esperanto, propaedeutic, intercultural communication

1. The challenges of identity, creativity and multilingualism
In today’s global world, the education profession needs to make the coming generation aware of the world’s cultural diversity, so that the youth can show openness and tolerance towards people coming from other backgrounds. The teaching of other languages can contribute to achieving this goal. However, for practical reasons such as the complexity of languages, learners’ motivation and heterogeneous classes, classroom teaching is rarely sufficient to achieve bi- or multilingualism.

Supposedly every language teacher longs for a tool which could make his task easier or alleviate some obstacles - such as, leveling the field between unequal children, making the complex language matter more transparent, creating a motivation for young people to learn, stimulating creativity and encouraging the respect of cultures. This paper suggests that Esperanto, without being a magic recipe, has the potential to significantly improve the situation in these many regards.

Esperanto was “born” in 1887 in Poland under Czarist control - its author, Dr LL Zamenhof, gave himself the name “Esperanto: the one who hopes”. Esperanto was created as a second language for all - a help for communication that wouldn’t threaten cultural identities. Since 1887, it has sustained a double growth: the language itself has become richer in its expression, and its community has expanded on all continents. Estimations on the number of speakers in the world vary between a few hundred thousands and five million. Esperanto speakers are very diverse in terms of their professions, interests, personalities, political or religious orientations, and they make the most diverse uses of the language, either for traveling purposes, written correspondence, access to world literature, or ability to discuss on expert topics with specialists from elsewhere in the world.

The potential of Esperanto to stimulate multilingualism will be presented in two steps: the next section will show how the learning process of Esperanto itself stimulates creativity and intercultural understanding. Thereafter Esperanto will be presented in its capacity as a bridge to other languages, ie as a language with propaedeutic value (that is, an ability to make the learning of other languages easier).

2. The Esperanto-learning process: a stimulation of creativity and intercultural understanding
Before arguing about the specificity of the learning process of Esperanto, it is appropriate to equip the reader with some of the language’s essential properties.

Laymen frequently see in Esperanto “a mixture of languages” or, at best, a “simplified European language”. It is true that Zamenhof borrowed the lexical elements for his language from the idioms he knew, mainly Hindo-European (Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, German, Yiddish, English, Polish, Russian). And, as Corsetti & La Torre (2001:184) noted, external observers are often struck by the number of “recognizable” words for a speaker of European languages (libro, pomo, arbo, hundo, fajro, etc).

Nevertheless, the most original and valuable element of Dr Zamenhof’s international language was less the vocabulary than the creation of a transparent grammar which tends to reflect deep human structures of thought and is adaptable to the most diverse cultures. Examples are the word-building mechanism (see exhibit 1) or the “table of correlatives” (see table 1).

Exhibit 1: An illustration of the word-building mechanism

Table 1: Correlatives in Esperanto and their English equivalents
Click here for table

This paper argues that these regular and flexible mechanisms not only lighten the burden of learning, but also stimulate creativity and respect cultural preferences.

The point about creativity is easily made. For illustration, we will look at word creation and the translation of idiomatic expressions, based on English and French as opposed to Esperanto.

Exhibit 1 has shown that in Esperanto, words are easily created like in a lego game. Hence the learner can, when words are missing, create his own phrase according to the image he has in mind. In a national language, this can be used as a strategy for comprehension but will immediately identify the learner as a foreigner - while in Esperanto, it is common practice also among confirmed speakers.

Imagine a French au pair in England trying to ask the lady of the house for a broom. Suppose she does not know the word broom. If she knows the word for to sweep, she may ask for “the thing to sweep”, which is easily understandable but not really elegant and therefore embarrassing. In Esperanto, on the other hand, if she talks of “the tool to sweep” (bala-ilo), she will have created the right word for a broom. Now imagine she doesn’t even know the verb “to sweep”. She will have to ask for “the thing to clean”, using her hands and feet to suggest the shape of a broom. This is even more embarrassing, because the periphrasis used not only does not sound good, but also is too vague, so that her employer may misunderstand her. In Esperanto, again, she may create the word “tool to clean” (pur-ig-ilo), which is a perfectly correct word, and if she wants to be more precise, she may create words reflecting the way she perceives the broom, either as a “thing to push the dust away” (polvo-forpus-ilo), a straw thing to clean (pajlo-pur-ig-ilo), or why not a “hairy stick to clean” (puriga harbastono)! These forms are not usual, but they are grammatically correct and therefore acceptable as long as they are understandable. Furthermore, they usually come very naturally, with no embarrassment for the speaker.

Similarly, idiomatic expressions represent a great difficulty in learning “natural” languages. By contrast, in Esperanto, one may simply “create” the word or expression required. Imagine our French au pair trying to say in English that she had a good laugh. A literal translation of the French “j’ai ri un bon coup” (“I laughed a good beat”) would, indeed, result in the listeners having a good laugh - but how could she guess that the English people “have” a laugh? If for every similar expression the student is obliged to conform to the arbitrary national usage, he is likely to lose confidence in speaking. In Esperanto, although there tends to be idiomatisms as in every living language, these are never compulsory. The most straightforward translation of “I had a good laugh” would be “mi bone ridis” (literally, “I laughed well”), but the speakers are welcome to use other forms such as “mi havis bonan ridon”, “mi ridegis”, etc.

These illustrations show the power of a logic-based language in liberating the learners (and the confirmed speakers) from the yoke of an external authority. Of course, even in Esperanto, there are limits to the freedom of creating words: the basic grammatical rules must be respected and the word or expression must be generally understandable. Nevertheless, the flexibility of Esperanto enables its speakers to adopt a radically different attitude than the one needed when applying externally given rules of usage. Even self-conscious learners feel empowered by their “right to creativity”, and this is a much stronger motivation than the fear of repression, laughter or embarrassment, which takes place when there are foreign “owners” of the language.

The ability of Esperanto to transmit cultural constructs follows from the same property. Indeed, linguistic creations certainly are often based on implicit comparisons, which are a function of national (or regional) cultures.

To illustrate this idea, one may think of a kindergarten. The English word is borrowed from German (literally “children’s garden”), which comes from Friedrich Fröbel’s (1840) typically Germanic perception of the child as a plant which must grow in harmony with other plants under the hand of a gardener. This image has given birth to the Esperanto word infangardeno, which is frequently used by Europeans. But other speakers may prefer to use other words through which they express their own conception of what is happening there, such as infanvartejo (“place where children are being attended to”), infanludejo (“place where children play”), antaulernejo (“preschool”), etc. The person who hears this will, through the choice of the word, understand precisely how this place is perceived in his interlocutor’s culture.

There are numerous other telling examples, in the area of meals, colours, etc, which make of Esperanto a language adaptable to the speakers’ cultures and identities.

Before leaving the topic of Esperanto and identities, let me make another point specifically related to South Africa. It is a regrettable fact, in this country, that many native speakers of African languages lose interest in their mother tongue because they come to realize that English is more useful to them and is perceived as “the” world language. All features of the English language tend to be viewed as superior, even in areas where English is undoubtedly weak, such as phonetic or word economy. Arguably, this results in a devaluation of one’s identity and, eventually, a loss of self-esteem.

Many features of Esperanto, in contrast, are consistent with African languages, such as the pronunciation of most letters or the existence of a causative suffix. For example, the isiXhosa: -tya (“to eat”) => -tyisa (“to cause someone to eat”), corresponds to the Esperanto mangi => mangigi.

I have witnessed the pride of Xhosa children who discover that some foreign (non-English) words are pronounced like in their mother tongue. This makes me believe that the learning of Esperanto would be a wonderful opportunity for them to discover the value of their own language and regain a sense of their identity.

Beyond the properties of the language itself, learning Esperanto enhances cross-cultural understanding through the opportunities to participate in numerous projects set up by the Esperanto community. It starts with reading of world literature, which is abundantly translated into Esperanto (see Auld, 1972), but it includes other projects, such as Interkulturo, a web-based project targeted at schoolchildren (Petrovic 2003), or Indigenaj Dialogoj, a project linking indigenous peoples from all continents.

3. Esperanto as a bridge to other languages
Esperanto also serves as a bridge to other languages. Rarely do Esperanto speakers satisfy themselves with the knowledge of the international language - they often learn several additional languages.

Numerous experiments have been conducted in various countries, especially in school classes, to prove the propaedeutic value of the language (that is, Esperanto’s ability to make the learning of other languages easier) (see Corsetti & La Torre, 2001). Typically, those experiments are of the following form: within a school, a group of students will receive teaching in foreign language FL1 for a period of x years, while another group of students will receive Esperanto teaching for one year and teaching in FL1 for (x-1) years. At the end of the period, the level reached by students of both groups in FL1 is assessed and compared - with the result that, in the majority of abilities assessed, the students who started with Esperanto perform better than those who had a longer FL1 teaching. Halloran (1959, p 204) has the interesting result that the beneficial effect of learning Esperanto was particularly noticeable among pupils categorized as “less intelligent” - which seems to invalidate the frequent assumption that Esperanto works only for particularly gifted people.

Although many more, and in some cases more rigorous, studies would be needed to constitute scientifically more robust proofs of the propaedeutic value of Esperanto (Corsetti & La Torre), it is at least worthwhile proposing some theoretical reasons for the effect observed. Two groups of reasons can be thought of, and the theory of Lily Wong Fillmore (1991, 2001) will give a theoretical framework to these arguments.

Fillmore (1979), who studied the acquisition of English as a second language in the US, showed that its learning was a complex process involving a variety of strategies, categorized as: cognitive, social and organizational strategies (in the sense of analyzing and sorting linguistic data).

Let us concentrate on the latter two types of strategies and consider what their application depends on.

Fillmore’s later works (1991) suggest that the success probability of social strategies is a function of the availability of speakers of the target language and their attitude (they must be in sufficient numbers, and they must “provide the learners with access to the language”), as well as a social setting that brings learners and target language speakers into the right type of contacts. As to the organizational strategies, Fillmore’s works (1991) suggest that they are subject to the learners’ intellectual competence, such as verbal memory or pattern recognition.

Although Fillmore was concerned only with the English language, her framework can be used to argue that the knowledge and active practice of Esperanto helps the learners of other languages in two ways.

Firstly, Esperanto gives young people numerous opportunities to make friends with people from other linguistic backgrounds, for example at international youth meetings. This often results in Esperanto speakers spending prolonged periods, or the rest of their life, in a foreign country. The use of national languages among Esperanto speakers is now specifically offered as an activity in the programmes of several Esperanto meetings, so that there is a favourable social setting according to Fillmore’s criteria. Furthermore, the people concerned generally have had time to get to know one another through Esperanto before undertaking to learn one another’s languages, so that the “ice is broken”, ie the quality of the interaction is better than in the usual language learning context. As a result, Esperanto speakers often become fluent in other languages, being thus truly multilingual.

Secondly, it could be argued that the clarity (regularity, transparency and flexibility) of Esperanto equips the learners with a well-built linguistic system that can be used to apprehend other languages. Certainly, the learning process of a foreign language will be very different, but by building analogies between the target language and Esperanto, the learner will also be able to quickly identify anomalies. Perhaps more importantly, the learner’s “organizational abilities” (eg categorization of words learnt, pattern recognition) will be fostered by the knowledge of Esperanto.

With such advantages on the social and on the organizational levels, Esperanto speakers - even those who are not particularly gifted language learners - should be able to absorb other foreign languages more rapidly and more effectively.

4. Concluding words
A lot of research and teaching development needs to take place on Esperanto, which remains a young language. Nevertheless, it would be desirable to undertake more experiments of teaching Esperanto to children prior to other languages. The children’s school performance seems to benefit from it, and the international language will open a wide access to the world to them.

Arguably, Esperanto would be particularly suited in the African context, as a means to reconcile the two thrusts of language policy, namely, the wish to give Africans an access to the world, and the efforts to value indigenous languages. Currently, the dominant role of English causes a conflict between the two objectives, forcing policy to immobility.

Esperanto associations would happily consider all possibilities to delegate an Esperanto teacher to interested schools. However, a better route to take may be for interested teachers to take up a course up front and then teach by themselves. There are numerous options for adults to learn Esperanto, either in clubs in many towns and cities, or using a correspondence or Internet course, or autodidactically. In any case, the author will gladly answer questions or orient interested people to contact persons in their area.


Auld, William (1972), The Cultural Value of Esperanto, © 1972 Channing Bete Company, Inc.
Corsetti, Renato & Mauro La Torre (2000), Cu klara strukturo estas instrua? (Is a clear structure an aid to language learning?), in Interface, Journal of Applied Linguistics, 15.2 (2001), pp 179-202.
Fillmore, Lily Wong (1991), Second language learning in children: a model of language learning in social context, in Bialystok, Ellen (ed), Language processing in bilingual children, Cambridge 1991.
Fillmore, Lily Wong (1979), Individual differences in second language acquisition, in CJ Fillmore, D Kempler and W S-Y Wang (eds), Individual differences in language ability and language behaviour, pp 203-28, New York: Academic Press.
Halloran, JH (1959), A Four-Year Experiment in Esperanto as an Introduction to French, British Journal of Educational Psychology 22 [3]: 202-204.
Petrovic, R (2003), On a web based project of language learning and intercultural education, Paper presented at the 2003 FIPLV Conference, Johannesburg, July 2003.

Magali von Blottnitz
Secretary, Esperanto Association of Southern Africa



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