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

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Tips and Tricks for Host-Family Living

You survive the eight (plus) hour plane ride, you give the customs officer your best smile and get your passport stamped, then you somehow find your way to your group/professor/team in a foreign airport; the logistics alone of a study abroad can be daunting to say the least. Add a host-family set-up to the mix and it’s downright terrifying. Not only are you practicing a language that you know very little of, but you’re trying to personalize and adapt to your new living conditions respectfully with your limited vocabulary. Factor in the aspect of actually getting along with your family and you can see that it’s a fragile set-up.

In spite of these challenges, the benefits have been proven time and time again; students of a foreign language learn best when immersed in conversation with native speakers. Thus, living with a host family (for any amount of time) is a huge advantage in learning a new language. As a student of both German and Swahili, I have had the privilege of living with two families – one in a suburban town in northern Bavaria (a region of Germany) called Bad Neustadt an der Saale, the other in a modest village in the Tanga region of Tanzania called Lushoto – to practice my language skills.

Considering how similar my German home was to my American home in suburban Michigan, I am going to focus on my home-stay in Lushoto, Tanzania. Living with my host-family there in East Africa was an experience which I think provided me the greatest linguistic improvement for such a short span of time, especially considering that I had only taken two years of Swahili prior to my visit, in comparison to five years of German before my home-stay in Bad Neustadt.

On the day I arrived at my host-home in Lushoto, I wrote the following: “We pulled into a narrow road, lined with street-vendors and small shops and then turned into a court-like opening where a gaggle of neighborhood children were playing soccer. As soon as the bus pulled up, the children noticed it was stuffed with “wazungu” (white people in Swahili), they came rushing to the bus in a frenzy… I cannot recall a time when I was so nervous or so out of my comfort zone as that moment, standing on the porch and saying goodbye to Mama (our professor), Alfred (our tour guide), and Esther (our Swahili teacher)…”

I consider myself an exceptionally outgoing person. Seldom do I hesitate to approach someone with a question, concern, or even a compliment, and I have often been described as “too talkative” and thus “distracting” throughout my schooling career. Even with these tendencies, stepping into my host-home in Lushoto for the first time rendered me speechless. That’s simply the effect of living in a host-home: you are automatically the guest, the “other” – the cultural specimen. Now you represent yourself, your university – and in your host-family’s eyes – your country. Everything is new from the toilets to the kitchen to the electricity (or lack thereof) and even the chickens clucking around in the backyard. It’s all new and you must navigate this new space with grace and gratitude. It’s a tall-order for the student, who is probably only 19 or 20 years old. So in order to make this experience just that much smoother, here are my tips, tricks and insights into how best to navigate a foreign host-home.

  1. They don’t expect you to be a genius – Especially as Americans who “typically” spend little time learning foreign languages, your host-family will not expect you to be giving a dissertation in their native language. In my experience, my family was thrilled when I could string together even the most basic of sentences, boiling down complex situations into generalizations such as: “Most people…”; “Typically…”; “I like…” etc. Even just throwing out vocabulary like “table,” “education” or “sibling” (or asking about such words) will impress your host family and give them hope that Americans do, in fact, take the time to learn foreign languages.
  2. Hook onto the essentials – There will be words and phrases that are crucial that you nail down. For example, knowing how to ask for directions, telling time, and asking where the bathroom is. After a few days living with my host family, I still hadn’t showered. One aspect of this issue was that I didn’t think I needed one yet; the other was that I didn’t know what the word for shower was. When my host mom asked if I wanted to shower later that day, I gave an enthusiastic “ndiyo” (yes) and made a mental note of the verb “to shower”: kuoga. As an added benefit, I have not since forgotten that word, as it was so crucial to my life in Tanzania.
  3. Charades go a long way – In the episode of communicating my need for a shower, my host mom illustrated the otherwise unknown verb, “kuoga,” with vigorous scrubbing and imaginary water streaming from the space above her. Her movements made the question clear – “Do you want to shower?” Taking a cue from my host mom, don’t be afraid to add a little jig or some hand-motions to your conversation – you might feel silly, but you’ll be better understood and maybe even become closer to your host-family on account of your tom-foolery.

All in all, living with a host family during your time abroad is a sure-fire way to get the most linguistic improvement out of your study abroad. 10/10 would recommend. “Asante, kwa herini!” Thank you, goodbye all!

— Britt Boyle

Online games to learn Russian (and other languages!)

Привет! In this post I thought I’d share a few games that I like to use to practice Russian – vocabulary, listening, the case system, and typing!

Ba Ba Dum is four games in one. Practice vocabulary (and listening and reading) with matching and spelling games that involve only pictures and the target language – no translation, so you can get used to thinking in the language! For extra fun, it’s available in 13 languages:

  • Portuguese
  • Romanian
  • Greek
  • Swedish
  • Japanese
  • Russian
  • Italian
  • French
  • Spanish
  • German
  • Polish
  • American English
  • British English

Russian Case Roulette helps you learn the 6 Russian cases through a series of visually-appealing games. Grammar terms are presented in both English and Russian.

Finally, keybr.com is a fun, multilingual, highly responsive online typing tutor. It keeps track of which letters you are struggling with and presents them more frequently, so you can get extra practice. I like to get a little typing practice in every evening – you can do a few minutes at a time, and your data will be saved. Under Settings -> Keyboard Layout, you can set the language to one of these six:

  • English
  • German
  • French
  • Italian
  • Portuguese
  • Russian

I hope you have fun with some of these games, and learn a little Russian (or Portuguese, or Greek, or Spanish…) along the way!

– Amelia