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Why Esperanto, since we have, by default,
a world language English?

(Answers by a Swiss and an American to arguments against Esperanto in the World Citizens' Movement)
 

       Claude Piron, Gland, Switzerland:

       L: There is much discussion promoting Esperanto as a lingua franca for our movement. I think that it ignores the fact that we already, have, by default, a world language - English.

       CP: That's an illusion. Many people can't communicate in English. And many who can are in an inferior position compared with native speakers. I speak both English and Esperanto, but, although I lived for five years in New York, I never feel as comfortable in English as in Esperanto. In Esperanto I am myself, in English I feel as though I am wearing a suit cut for somebody else, or as if I am playing a role, striving to imitate a model which has nothing to do with my roots. Esperanto has a kind of transparency which makes it pleasant whatever your mother tongue (this is due to neuropsychological factors that it would be too long to explain here; click on http://claudepiron.free.fr/articlesenanglais/communication.htm and go to "Language handicap belongs to the field of neuropsychology" in "The criteria").

       L: Esperanto is not a living language and is just as Eurocentric as English.

       CP: For me, Esperanto is a living language. I use it everyday and it comes more naturally to me than English and other languages I have learned. How do you define a living language? Esperanto is a language in which I've seen children playing. It's a language in which I've discussed animatedly and attended very good theater. It's a language in which I've heard confidences of distressed people telling their stories with much emotion (I remember in particular an old Chinese unable to control his tears as he was telling me what he went through during the cultural revolution). I don't see any difference with other languages as to liveliness, if the word exists (a question which never arises in Esperanto, thanks to its extreme freedom of word formation).

       Esperanto is not Eurocentric. While it is true that most roots come from European languages, no European language consists, like Chinese and Esperanto, of invariable roots that combine freely. In Esperanto, as in Chinese, you derive "my" from "I" and "first" from "one". I suggest you read my article "Esperanto, a western language?". And it is a fact that for non-Europeans it is much easier than English. See the testimonies I gathered in "Asie - anglais ou espéranto?". (Most of the quotations there are in English, so although the supporting text is in French, you will get the hang of it without problem.)

       L: It seems to me a waste of effort to learn to speak an artificial, sterile language when the learning of English has such practical benefits for the student.

       CP: Esperanto was artificial in the 19th century. It isn't anymore. All languages are artificial to a certain extent. When a child follows his nature, he says foots, I comed, it's mines. The correct forms are introduced into his brain from outside, quite artificially. In Esperanto he can follow his nature, since all linguistic traits can be generalized without restriction, so that such mistakes are impossible. I've observed the language of a 5-year old boy who was bilingual French/Esperanto. His Esperanto was perfect, his French was not, by a very wide margin. For me, it's evidence that Esperanto respects more the natural tendencies of the human brain as they manifest themselves when we try to express ourselves.

       Esperanto is not sterile. My mother tongue is French, and French seems to me much more sterile than Esperanto, a young language with the flexibility, the strength and the productivity of youth. There was a word for "software" in Esperanto before there was one in French. And many Esperanto words have no English equivalents, like samlingvano 'a person speaking the same language' or kisema (from kis-, "kiss") 'who has a tendency to kiss a lot', 'keen on kissing'.

       As for the waste of effort, I know so many people who spent years and years trying to master English without much success, and so many people who mastered Esperanto in a few months, that I'll recommend Esperanto to anybody interested in contacts with the whole world. English is OK with big hotels, airlines, tourist exploiters, businessmen and a part of the scientific community, but if you want real in-depth contacts with ordinary people, Esperanto is much better.

       L: It's not that English is above other languages - it just happens to have become the language most used internationally among scientific, commercial and other disciplines - a historical accident but a fact nonetheless.

       CP: Indeed. But with that kind of reasoning, there would still be a lot of slaves, and there would be no woman with political responsibilities. A fact is not good just because it is a fact. How could there be progress if you equate "fact" with "final", "unimprovable" ? If another means is better to reach the same goal, why not take up the better option? Esperanto is not above other languages, but, among people with different language backgrounds, it is fairer than English (or do you say "more fair"?). With Esperanto everybody has to make some effort to reach the common ground, and there everybody can communicate on an equal footing with everybody else. English imposes to non native speakers hours and hours of studying (four hours a week for six years as an average in European schools), and the outcome of such a huge investment of mental energy, spared to Anglophones, is that people find themselves in an inferior position in relation to the latter when they struggle to defend their ideas. With Esperanto, communication is much smoother, because everybody is spared all the dilemmas which confront a non native speakers of English, and which hamper communication without contributing anything to it, such as "which syllable am I supposed to stress in alternative, in monitoring, in such and such a word?", "how do I pronounce ou in cough? as in tough, though, through, or thought ?" or "should I say more fair or fairer, etc. etc.?"

       L: A concocted world language will never gain wide acceptance, given the myriad scripts, literature, history and traditions, which enrich the world's languages.

       CP: Why never? Besides, "concocted" is not fair. Embryonic Esperanto was composed as a symphony is composed, as a collection of poems is composed, with much intelligence and much feeling. And you should not confuse today's Esperanto with the project published in Warsaw in 1887. Esperanto is the result of intensive use: more than a century of interactions among people from the most varied cultures and social origins. The 1887 booklet is just the ground from which it has grown to the full-fledged language it is today.

       Anyway, I don't see any contradiction between the existence of "a myriad scripts, literature, history and traditions which enrich the world's languages" and the adoption of Esperanto as a means of understanding one another, and of transmitting to one another the cultural riches of one's tradition. I do not see either why communicating in English respects more the said myriad. Could it be that you're mistaken on Esperanto's purpose and imagine it is meant to replace other languages? This is diametrically opposed to the truth. Esperanto is meant to replace only the deaf-mute relationship to which people without a common tongue are condemned, or the broken English which is, today, the language of many intercultural situations. With Esperanto, everybody keeps his or her own tongue and dialect, and uses the international language only with people whose language they do not speak. In that function, it is better than English. It is far easier, it is less rigid (you can follow much more the structures of your mother tongue, whatever it is, and yet have a flawless speech), and it is not linked to any nation or to any economic or political power. To say nothing of the fact that it is phonetically clearer, and easier to pronounce for most peoples.

       L: Many of our languages are becoming endangered species and the need to conserve them should be recognised.

       CP: Right. And which is the language that sociolinguists call "a killer language", because it is the language which takes most often the place of local ones? English. Esperanto respects traditional languages much better than English while elegantly solving the problem of communicating across language barriers. It is born of a thirst to communicate among different cultures, and everybody knows its function is just to be a good intermediary. So nobody sees in it something that must be the language, as English is regarded in many Singaporean families, which forsake Chinese, Malay or Tamil because they feel that only if the whole family speaks English all the time will the children be fluent enough to get interesting employment later. This cannot happen with Esperanto, because you assimilate it much more quickly, so that there is no need to be so much immersed in it. English is felt as a means of climbing to the level of the elite, the powerful, whose power is such that they even decide what is right and what is wrong in the way you express yourself. Hence the will to forsake your mother tongue for the sake of improving your life (this is the case of many immigrants in the US). Esperanto is never felt as belonging to such a high level, worth strenuous efforts to be conquered. So it guarantees much more than English the preservation of languages spoken only by small minorities.
 

       H. Neal Parker, Houston, Texas

       L.: There is much discussion promoting Esperanto as a lingua franca for our movement. I think that it ignores the fact that we already, have by default,a world language - English.

       HNP: What Esperanto is today and what it aspires to be are two very different things. The goal of Esperantists is that everyone (and I mean everyone, not just the educated elite) will continue to speak his native language and learn one additional language - Esperanto - to communicate with everyone outside his own linguistic community. By that standard English is very far away from being "a world language". A poll taken in 2000 before the expansion of the European Union showed that 53% of Europeans speak a second language and that 41% of those who do speak English. In other words about half speak no second language, and those who do often don't speak English. I have seen statistical evidence multiple times that indicates that only about 2% of Indians speak English, even though the educated elite do speak it well.

       [A remark by CP: This poll considers only what people say of themselves. When their level is checked by a language test, the results are quite different. A research by Lintas Worldwide revealed that in Western Europe 94% were unable to understand three short texts in everyday English. In France, 20% of people asked about their level in English answered that it was "very good" ; when put to the test, only 3% were shown to really master the language. See http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2000/11/wallraff2.htm].

       A few years ago I had an interesting experience in southern Mexico. I was on a bus approaching San Cristóbal, and I realized that I had no map of the city. I noticed that a couple had a copy of Lonely Planet in French. I don't speak French, but I can read it well enough to extract basic information. I approached them. They spoke no English and no Spanish, and it appeared that we would have no conversation, but it turned out that the man spoke German, which I also speak. So we were able to converse, not at an advanced level, but quite adequately. They had worked in North Africa and spoke Arabic. They were not monolinguals, but English was not one of their languages.

       On another occasion in Santiago de Compostela in Spain a French man was staying in the same small hotel. At breakfast he was very friendly and obviously wanted to converse, but he didn't speak a word of either Spanish or English, and my French doesn't go much beyond 'Bonjour', so that was that. All we could do was smile.

       L: Esperanto is not a living language and is just as Eurocentric as English.

       HNP: It is Eurocentric. Since 1887 the grammatical principles have remained unchanged, but the vocabulary has grown dramatically. The latest version of Plena Ilustrita Vortaro, the principal dictionary, is physically about the size of Websters's Collegiate and contains about 47000 lexical items. Because of Esperanto's word building system, lots of words with an obvious derivative meaning, are not in dictionaries. It is very much a living, in-use language. If the customary estimate of about 2 million speakers is correct, more people speak Esperanto than some of the minor languages of the European Union. Search for "esperanto" in Google, and you'll be amazed at the number of hits. There are over 30000 articles in the Esperanto version of Wikipedia.

       L: It seems to me a waste of effort to learn to speak an artificial, sterile language when the learning of English has such practical benefits for the student.

       HNP: It is artificial in the sense that the structure of the language is planned, designed, and regular unlike the case of natural languages. But that is an advantage, not a defect. And it is hardly sterile. I am trained as a linguist, and I find that speaking a language which strives to be logical is a stimulating intellectual experience.

       In today's world knowing English is essential for certain classes of people, for example, scientists. It has great practical value, as you say. No sensible Esperantist says to those people, "Forget English, learn Esperanto instead." Learning other languages in addition to English can be a rewarding intellectual experience and can have its own sort of practical value. Esperanto is a reasonable candidate for one of those language.

       Also don't overestimate the need for English. I've met lots of intelligent, well-educated people in Latin America who don't know English. There is vastly more information available in Spanish and in Portuguese than any individual can assimilate in a lifetime.

       L: It's not that English is above other languages - it just happens to have become the language most used internationally among scientific, commercial and other disciplines - a historical accident but a fact nonetheless.

       HNP: It is very out-of-fashion these days to say openly to someone, "I am better than you are", but that doesn't mean that we don't believe it. Your statement is a pro-forma disclaimer which really doesn't mean anything. If everyone learns English, then English really is above other languages and in a class all of its own. Maybe that's the way it has to be. The world really does need an international language. I happen to think that in the long run a planned language like Esperanto is a better alternative, primarily because it is more efficient. The time required to learn to communicate at any given level of proficiency in a planned language is much less than the time required to do that in a natural language; English, for example. Whether Esperanto is sufficient for international communication is an empirical, not a philosophical question, and I believe that almost 120 years of use have shown that it is.

       L: A concocted world language will never gain wide acceptance, given the myriad scripts, literature, history and traditions, which enrich the world's languages.

       HNP: Well, let's wait and see. The idea of the metric system was first proposed by Gabriel Mouton, a vicar in Lyon, in 1670 according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It took 200 years for it to be fully implemented in Europe, and of course it still has not conquered the United States. Big ideas take a long time to establish themselves.

       L: Many of our languages are becoming endangered species and the need to conserve them should be recognised just as we acknowledge the need to conserve natural habitats and diversity of species in the natural world.

       HNP: Preserving minor languages is a problem unrelated to the need for an international medium of communication. We have to communicate universally as a matter of practicality but I don't believe Esperanto will provide a solution. You may be right, but as I said, let's wait and see.

 

© Claude Piron