The Advantages of Esperanto

Note: Esperanto is a constructed language created by the Jewish Polish doctor L. L. Zamenhof, who lived in the Russian Empire, and published after many years of work in 1887. Its original intention was to serve as an international auxiliary language (IAL), or a universal second language for people of all countries. There have been numerous different proposals for constructed IALs over the years, but Esperanto, with both its long history and its estimated two million speakers worldwide, is generally regarded as the archetype and most successful of the IALs. Other especially notable IALs include Ido (which is itself a derivative of Esperanto sometimes referred to as “reformed Esperanto”) and Interlingua.

I didn’t find Esperanto until midway through high school, but when I did it was something of a revelation. By that point, I had struggled conceptually with Spanish through three years of middle school instruction and two more in high school, and the first great draw of mine to Esperanto was its simplicity and incredibly logical structure. I had never studied a constructed language or even encountered one before, and I was amazed at how much more conceptual sense it made than any of the languages that I had studied before (Spanish and English) or would study after (German). After especially struggling with Spanish’s grammatical gender and relatively complex verb conjugations, I thoroughly enjoyed the lack of grammatical gender and beautifully simple verb conjugations in Esperanto; to this day, I can conjugate any verb in Esperanto: the suffixes are -as for present tense, -is for past, -os for future, -u for imperative, -us for conditional, and -i for infinitive. (Esperanto also has a full set of participles, both active and passive, that logically share vowels with the tense to which they correspond.)

Esperanto also has plenty of other substantial advantages over the other languages that I have studied, ranging from its completely phonetic alphabet (essentially a Slavic alphabet written in the Roman script) in which there is a universal one-sound-to-one-character relationship to its use of regular suffixes to denote parts of speech and numerous prefixes and compound words to reduce the absolute vocabulary necessary to gain a command of the language. However, its most interesting element to me is how it naturally enables more logical thought patterns through the very way in which it is constructed. The simplest example is how any noun (all of which end with the suffix -o) can be easily transformed into an adjective (-a) or adverb (-e), which allows for the much easier construction and communication of a thought along the lines of “[noun]-like”. For example, if you wanted to describe another sport as being like soccer (futbalo), you could easily call it futbala or refer to a related action connoted by a verb as futbale. While studying Esperanto, this functionality really made an impression on me and certainly made me wish that this was easily done in English as well.

Even more striking to me was what is called the “table of correlatives” in Esperanto, a completely logical grouping of the correlative terms that is entirely unlike anything I’ve seen in the other three languages I’ve studied. The basic idea is that all correlatives consist of a prefix and a suffix that they share with the other words to which they have a logical relationship. For instance, the word for what (kio) shares its suffix with the other “things” tio (that) and nenio (nothing) while also sharing the question prefix “k” with kiam (when), kie (where), and kiom (how much). Predictably, never is neniam and there is tie. To me, the table of correlatives is truly brilliant and is perhaps even Esperanto’s “killer app”.

Taking more of a broad view, I was also fascinated, and continue to be fascinated, by two purposes that Esperanto can serve and indeed has been advocated for serving over the decades. The first is as an international auxiliary language (IAL). Due to both its sheer simplicity and the fact that it is (relatively) neutral and not the native language of any nation, people, or government, Esperanto has been suggested as an IAL on a number of occasions since its creation in 1887, most notably when it was proposed as (although it ultimately failed to become) the working language of the League of Nations in the interwar period. While critics have observed that it is not perfectly logical and noted other factors that have helped prevent its widespread adoption as an IAL, I still believe in the premise and really do think that a worldwide language landscape in which Esperanto (or some other IAL) is adopted (nearly) universally as a second language would be vastly preferable to the current use of non-constructed, “natural” languages (especially English) as international languages for a variety of reasons, ranging from ease of learning languages to protection of (especially smaller) endangered languages to basic concepts of fairness.

In my opinion, another (fairly different) advantage can be gained by studying Esperanto at a relatively young age (probably in elementary school), which has long been argued by a number of experts in pedagogy as being beneficial for the learning of other (more difficult) languages later in life. Looking back on my own personal experience, I believe that I began studying foreign languages too late in my life, in sixth grade. If I could do it all over again, I wish I could have studied (and mastered) Esperanto in elementary school before starting Spanish classes in middle school. I personally think that Esperanto would serve as a great option for a foreign language for students who do not have a strong desire to learn a specific foreign language (especially the fairly common choices of Spanish, French, or German) or even learn a foreign language at all. The simplicity and logical structure of Esperanto are incredibly reassuring while studying, and I know from personal experience that it can be a much more fulfilling language to study than more difficult and frustrating non-constructed languages.

I believe that in a perfect world, Esperanto (or a similar neutral IAL) would serve as a global auxiliary language studied by all, while then the study of other truly “foreign” languages would be directly connected to cultural immersion and programs such as study abroad. In other words, an IAL (such as Esperanto) would serve the more functional purpose of international communication while studying a third language (or more additional languages) would be much more about studying or connecting with the culture that speaks that language on its own terms, instead of in a neutral international setting with an essentially neutral IAL. Personally, I think that this would be good for both the IAL and other “foreign” languages, in addition to language learners everywhere.

–Michael Barera

Hello, Hi, Goodbye?

Greetings and goodbyes are such a strange concept. We come up with these silly phrases to signal the beginning and the end of a conversation, and often they fail to capture what is really meant in the greeting or goodbye – the essence of it. You wouldn’t think much about them, considering how mundane they are, but greetings and goodbyes speak volumes about the culture in which they’re spoken.

Take Swahili, for example. During my month-long study abroad in Tanzania, I had the opportunity to speak Swahili with native speakers after having learned the language for a mere two years. Greetings seemed – initially – like they would be the easiest to say and understand, considering they are rather basic and among the first phrases I learned. But when walking through the market and arriving at home or school, the greetings I heard threw my brain in a tizzy, and “Hellos” I gave were sometimes met with laughter. Why was this?

It seemed, that the “Hellos” and “How are yous” I had concocted were merely the closest translations of my standard American-English greetings. For example I would say, Habari za asubuhi, which literally means news of the morning, or “How are you this morning?,” or Hujambo, which means “Are you not well?” but more colloquially, “Hello.” Although these greetings were perfectly acceptable, they were sometimes silly to the Tanzanians I was greeting because they could sense the “American-ness” of such greetings (not to mention the lack of practiced slang of the area).

I was using only the best Swahili counterparts to my American-English phrases. But when I took the time to learn the greetings and goodbyes of Tanzanian-Swahili, not only was I able to communicate better, but I also got a glimpse into the lives of east Africans.

The greeting Umeamkaje? summarizes this idea perfectly: this simple word literally means, “How have you woken up?” but could be roughly translated to “Did you sleep well?” With this information in mind, I began to see how genuinely Tanzanians care about the well being of one another. I would be greeted this way often in the streets on my walk to the bus stop each morning. In the streets! By strangers! I imagined myself being asked the same question on the street by a stranger in Ann Arbor and I scoffed at the idea – nobody would dare greet a stranger in such a way (or even greet a stranger at all for that matter).

When asked Umeamkaje? so frequently, I soon realized that greetings and goodbyes are more than just easy phrases to initiate or conclude a conversation. They are, rather, a small snapshot of how people in that culture relate to one another.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, in her book “North to the Orient” touches on the same idea, elaborating on the weaknesses of some goodbyes, rather beautifully:

For Sayonara, literally translated, “Since it must be so,” of all the good-bys I have heard is the most beautiful. Unlike the Auf Wiedersehens and Au revoirs, it does not try to cheat itself by any bravado “Till we meet again,” any sedative to postpone the pain of separation. It does not evade the issue like the sturdy blinking Farewell. Farewell is a father’s good-by. It is – “Go out into the world and do well, my son.” It is encouragement and admonition. It is hope and faith. But it passes over the significance of the moment; of parting it says nothing. It hides its emotion. It says too little. While Good-by (“God be with you”) and Adios say too much. They try to bridge the distance, almost to deny it. Good-by is a prayer, a ringing cry. “You must not go alone, unwatched. God will be with you. God’s hand will be over you” and even – underneath, hidden by it is there, incorrigible – “I will be with you; I will watch you – always.” It is a mother’s good-by. But Sayonara says neither too much nor too little. It is a simple acceptance of fact. All understanding of life lies in its limits. All emotion, smoldering, is banked up behind it. But it says nothing. It is really the unspoken good-by, the pressure of a hand, “Sayonara.”

Hello, hi, goodbye…they all just seem so plain to me now, knowing what I do about the richness of other phrases. And while asking my roommate Umeamkaje? in the morning might be a good-hearted idea, and saying Sayonara each time I must part from someone is certainly romantic, it seems doubtful that these words will ever amount to more than just a cutesy-foreign phrase when borrowed in our daily English jargon.

I do, however, think that it’s time for our English counterparts to mean more… for us to mean more when we say “Hello” and “Goodbye” because our conversations these days seem to be lacking in sincerity.

So when someone concocts the English equivalent of Sayonara, let me know. But until then, Farewell.

— Britt Boyle

Exercise Your Brain by Learning a Language

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I would like to emphasize that ANYONE at ANY AGE can learn a new language. It’s a great workout for your brain! And it helps stave off dementia. Other benefits include: having a better understanding of another culture, a better understanding of your mother tongue and own culture, opening your world to new friends, an additional skill to add to your resumé which can lead to more money in your pocket.

My original reason for learning Spanish was that having a Hispanic background, I wanted to better understand “my” past and to be able to tell the Spanish speaking telemarketers to remove our number from their calling list.

What’s holding you back? Why would you want to learn a new language?

Have I sold you yet? Want some guidance in getting started on your language learning journey? Try here: Fluent in 3 Months. That’s the blog and language learning…

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Can I have the language of origin? Language Knowledge is Key to Spelling Bee Success

“Bouillabaisse”, “Scherenschnitte,” and “Rhodochrosite.”

All three of the words above can be found in nearly any English dictionary, but they probably don’t look familiar upon first glance. While words like these do not typically pop-up in normal conversations, they recently made an appearance on national television during finals of the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Spelling Bees are well-known throughout the United States as a platform for students, usually aged 9 to 14, to test their vocabulary knowledge by spelling words onstage in front of a large audience. These young competitors could encounter any word from the English language, but the biggest challenge is the uncertainty of which word they will face when they step-up to the microphone: will it be a common word, or something a little more intimidating, such as “pyrrhuloxia”?

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Since there are over a million English words listed in the Merriam Webster Dictionary, it is very likely that students at an advanced spelling level are asked to spell words that they have never before seen or heard. If you’ve never seen the word before, how could you possibly know how to spell it?

Your first instinct might be to spell the word the same way that it sounds.This can be helpful at times, but there are many English words that are not spelled phonetically (take for example “gnome”, “tsunami”, or “psychology”).

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During a Spelling Bee, competitors are allowed to ask a few questions about their word, such as its definition or how it would be used in a sentence, but the most insightful question of them all is the language of origin. It is very common for languages to adopt specific vocabulary from other languages, and English is no exception. By knowing the language that an English word originated from, spellers have a better chance of identifying special patterns from that language, especially if they have dedicated time to learning bits and pieces of foreign languages.

Learning German, for example, could be immensely helpful when faced with a word like “Gummihandschuh.” This word means rubber glove, but a literal German-English translation of this word is “Rubber-hand-shoe.” The German language is notorious for mashing numerous root words together to create one massive, compound word. By knowing the definition and recognizing the root words that make-up a compound word like this, a speller has a much higher chance of spelling a German word correctly.

Another helpful tidbit of knowledge comes with knowing which letters of the alphabet are exceptionally common in each language. Latin and Greek are the two most common languages of origin referenced during the spelling bees, but a very interesting distinction can be made between these languages in regard to the letter “k.” In a Latin-derived word,  you would rarely ever find a word that contains the letter “k.” This is very useful with a word like “hippocrepiform’, since it is much more likely that the /k/ sound is represented by the letter “c.” On the other hand, Greek-derived words are significantly more likely to utilize the letter“k,” which could make all the difference between spelling a word correctly or incorrectly.

Every word that composes the English language has a history behind it, and its spelling often reflects the characteristics of its original language. Whether you are a champion speller or just beginning to learn a new language, you may find your English spelling skills improving when you learn a new language.

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–Emily D.