Why Learn Esperanto? (Special Feature)

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An estimated 2 million people speak Esperanto worldwide. Around 1,000 are native speakers. (Photo: Philip Brewer / Flickr)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “Why Learn Esperanto? (Special Feature).” (You can subscribe to the podcast at Apple Podcasts or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)

A language invented in the 19th century, and meant to be universal, it never really caught on. So why does a group of Esperantists from around the world gather once a year to celebrate their bond?

Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

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In our previous episode, we looked at the idea of a universal language. One candidate was Esperanto, a language invented in the 19th century by a Jewish ophthalmologist named Ludovik Lazarus Zamenhof. Derived from various European roots, Esperanto was meant to be easy to learn and egalitarian. The idea was not for Esperanto to supersede existing languages.

Esther SCHOR: It would stand next to national languages and be a helping language to make bonds among people who were not like one another.

A noble goal, surely. But, alas, not quite attainable. At least not on the scale Zamenhof desired. However: as our producer Stephanie Tam learned, and as she explains in today’s special episode, there is a small global community of Esperantists who convene once a year to revel in their bond.

Christopher JOHNSON: Today you’re going to meet people who are taking time off of work, who are spending money to go and participate in this weird Esperantujo, as they call it — this weird Esperanto-land that only exists temporarily whenever all these weirdos meet together.

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On today’s episode: our producer Stephanie Tam takes a trip deep into Esperanto-land.

Stephanie TAM: Estimates for how many people speak Esperanto range, but the Ethnologue, a comprehensive language database, cites 2 million speakers spanning 100 countries. Just 1,000 of those are native speakers, who grow up in Esperanto-speaking families and usually also speak 1 or 2 other national languages. The most famous of these is probably the billionaire financier George Soros. But for the vast majority — well, they might be the only Esperanto speakers in the area. So … why on earth learn it? I traveled to the Esperanto-USA National Congress to find out. For the past several years, it’s been held at William Peace University, in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Lee MILLER: This is my fourth year here in Raleigh. As I was driving in from the west, we got to the first highway sign that said, “Raleigh: 55 miles.” I said, “It’s like coming home. It’s just like coming home! We’re almost there! This is so exciting! We’re there!”

TAM: That’s Lee Miller, a 65-year-old Texan and former sign language interpreter and nurse. He learned Esperanto at 16; now, he teaches it in his retirement. He and another Esperantist picked me up from the airport and drove me to campus.

MILLER: And I really have that sense of excitement. I know the place. We know the staff at the university now, and they know us, “Oh, it’s the Esperanto people. We’re glad to have you back!” And we’re glad to be back.

Stephanie TAM: You know that something interesting and sweet is happening when you feel that you’re returning home to a place that you only visit once a year.

MILLER: I know. It’s not really home, but these are people who are important to me. I don’t know if you know the old musical “Brigadoon.” It was about a little village in the countryside that only appeared one day a year and there is a love story connected with it. But sometimes I have the sense that our summer Esperanto gatherings are a little bit like that. We go away, for most of the year, and then during a week or two, we come back. We get together and we have face-to-face interactions. It is very sweet — sweet is a good word for it.

TAM: A lot of Esperantists describe their community as a kind of family — somewhat ironic, as the joke among Esperantists is that many spouses don’t share the language; so, their actual, everyday family might not know Esperanto at all. And yet …

MILLER: If I were in a group like this and I needed somebody to hold my wallet, with all my money in it, I would hand it to an Esperanto speaker in full confidence that whenever I came back, they would hand it back to me and my money would still be in it. I have that level of confidence and trust in the people I know.

TAM: The National Congress is a combination of socializing, workshops, and seminars — and a dose of admin meetings about running the USA association. This year, there were about 70 attendees, with guests flying in from Canada, the Netherlands, and elsewhere — and about 1,000 streaming from Facebook Live. For the past several years, the National Congress has been followed by an 8-day Esperanto summer course, where people can learn the language; this year, they had 58 students. Both events are held at William Peace — a fitting home for a language born with the goal of world unity. That internal idea of Esperanto, or what Esperantists call “la interna ideo” (pardon my accent), was originally rooted in Jewish universalism and remains a connecting thread. But humans being the fickle, creative creatures that they are, it’s been adapted throughout history for some very different ends …

SCHOR: The history of Esperanto involves socialists in the early 1920s, who wanted to use Esperanto to further the goals of socialism.

TAM: That’s Esther Schor, English professor and Esperanto scholar at Princeton University. We spoke a few weeks before the Congress.

SCHOR: It involves Bolshevism. The Soviets embraced Esperanto for a period of time in until they changed their minds and shot the Esperantists in 1938. There was a very short-lived Nazi Esperanto movement. Esperanto has been used for a number of other kinds of causes — for pacifism, for green consciousness, etc.

TAM: This year’s keynote speaker was Humphrey Tonkin, an English professor at the University of Hartford and former president of the Universal Esperanto Association. His speech highlighted what he considers the unjust dominance of English today. But he also recalled the original, founding principles of the language. He delivered the speech in Esperanto, and gave me an English translation afterward:

Humphrey TONKIN: Zamenhof emphasized that, first and foremost, we are human beings, and only secondarily members of particular nations or peoples or languages. If appealing to what is best in humanity rather than reinforcing what divides us is idealistic or utopian, I suppose we must plead guilty. But, if using what brings us together to talk about and celebrate what makes us all different, is a rational approach to our divided world then Esperanto seems to me to make a great deal of sense. I know what you, here in Raleigh at this gathering of Esperanto speakers, think: Esperanto works and you’re going to keep on using it and convincing others to do the same.

TAM: Despite that common, “internal idea” — whether you want to call it utopianism, universalism, etc — I discovered that people come to Esperanto for all sorts of reasons. Some are polyglots who just love learning languages; others are programmer types who appreciate its logic. And then there are those with a sense of adventure…

Orlando RAOLA: I’m originally from Cuba, where I also was part of the Esperanto movement. In real life, I work as a professor of chemistry in Santa Rosa Junior College in Santa Rosa, California.

TAM: That’s Orlando Raola, who recently finished his six-year term as President of Esperanto-USA.

RAOLA: Having been born in an island, and being an islander by nature, I always had this great curiosity: what is beyond the sea? What is the world out there? I understood early that the only way to communicate with humans is through language, and I was interested in many different cultures.

TAM: That said, his fascination with the world beyond didn’t lead him straight to Esperanto …

RAOLA: I was always fascinated by the culture of Nordic countries, especially Sweden. I once wrote a letter to the Swedish Institute — it’s a Swedish institution that disseminates Swedish culture outside Sweden. I sent them a letter: “I want to learn this language, I want to get to know about this culture.” A few months later, I got a big package with everything you need to know to learn Swedish — dictionaries, cassettes, courses for learning language, reading material. It was a big box! I said, “This is a very difficult language. I’m going to spend how many years learn[ing] this? Then, I will be able to communicate with a very tiny sliver of mankind!” I am very interested in the culture, but I am [also interested] in the culture of Japan, Hungary, and of China! Do I have time to learn all of these languages? No, there won’t be time. When I tried to go through it — that day, that’s the day I became an Esperantist.

TAM: So for some people, learning Esperanto is a way to follow their cultural curiosity. For others, though, there are war stories:

Maria MURPHY: My name is Maria Murphy. I am retired, have two wonderful boys and four wonderful grandchildren. It takes a special person to be really devoted Esperanto follower. It happened to me. I’m the one!

TAM: She’s a petite grandma with a cheeky smile, astoundingly upbeat given her past.

MURPHY: I grew up in Warsaw. You could call me a Holocaust survivor. I’m from [a] Jewish family that everybody was killed. Apparently I was a quiet baby, and I was constantly eating at mommy’s breast, so I was not crying. People were suffocating babies if they start crying.  

TAM: After the war, she and her mother left Poland.

MURPHY: We decided to immigrate to Israel, and on the way we stopped in France and Italy. As a very young girl, I pick up those languages pretty quickly on the street. I felt that people should be able to talk to each other — no matter where you are. Here, eight,nine year old girl. I had this strong experience — every country, every day I spoke different language. There should be a better way.

TAM: For Murphy, that better way was Esperanto, which she stumbled upon as a teenager. She and her mother had returned to Poland, and she came across an ad for an Esperanto Club:

MURPHY: You see at that time, I didn’t have really [a] society. I didn’t have any place that I felt I belong to, because most of the Polish people are very strong Catholic. So when I found group of people meeting twice a week, having wonderful discussion, drinking good coffee, eating good cake, and there were young people — it was very natural to become a part of it.

TAM: Murphy would actually meet her husband through Esperanto. Which brings us to another reason that people join the community: the love stories. Joel and Ĵenja Amis, were a Cold War couple who also met through Esperanto. Ĵenja’s from Ukraine; Joel from Atlanta. They had both applied for the same job, an editor position for an Esperanto magazine based in the Netherlands but operated remotely. Ĵenja snagged the top position:

Ĵenja AMIS: I asked, “Who was this other candidate?” It was some guy from the U.S. I ask, “Can you send me his resume?” Well, I was looking at it. “I like this guy. He looks so intelligent. I’ll try to hire him to be my assistant.”

Joel AMIS: You didn’t have a photo, it was just on paper — just to be clear. We worked together for like a year and a half or so before we ever met in person.

TAM: Work aside, they insist there’s a more fundamental way Esperanto connected them …

Ĵ. AMIS: Esperanto, it’s not just the language. It’s almost like a value system.

J. AMIS: I would agree. When I look back at the person I was in my early teens, before I became an Esperantist, I don’t really recognize that person anymore. I grew up as a Christian, and I still am. But my approach is much different. At first, it was just a linguistic interest, like a game. I didn’t have anyone locally to speak to. The Esperanto community brought me into contact with people that I wouldn’t have had contact with otherwise. I had pen pals in Eastern Europe or wherever, these places that were so far away from me culturally. It almost sounds evangelical to talk about it like that, but for me, at least, it was the catalyst that changed the course of my life. Maybe, if I hadn’t learned Esperanto, I might just be in Georgia, in a small town, not having traveled or anything like that. When I grew up, I heard that that the Soviet Union wanted to drop bombs on us, and this is the enemy, and she heard …

Ĵ. AMIS: Similar story, the other way around.

J. AMIS: How do we get to being married from that point, growing up in such different places — a different mindset? For both of us, Esperanto was that catalyst. What we have in the Esperanto community is a microcosm for what could be, or what should be. This community that spans languages, political ideologies, religions, races, on a small scale, this is the world that Zamenhof dreamed of.

TAM: Talking with Esperantists, I felt like I was interacting with an epic metaphor: linguistic communication as human community. The notion that a universal language could create world peace seemed too romantic — what about civil wars, where both parties shared the language? But at the same time, it was clear there was something special going on: Miller, Amis, Murphy, and these other Esperantists had used this language to create a kind of small-scale utopia. Up next, we get into pragmatics. Could Esperanto, for instance, save the European Union a lot of money in education costs?

CHARTERS: He concluded that actually it would be cheaper to have Esperanto play that intermediary role.

TAM: We discover how travel in this small-scale utopia works …

Ĵ. AMIS: Basically, you just show up and they usually give you a key to their homes.

TAM: And we ask: could that sense of trust and community be retained if the microcosm were scaled up?

JOHNSON: If Esperanto were to become a universal language, things like this would die …

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TAM: For all its idealism, Esperanto also has a deeply pragmatic side. It was designed to be easy to learn and, in a word, efficient. Which makes it a language that appeals not only to dreamers, activists, and ambassadors, but also … economists:

Duncan CHARTERS: There’s a professor at the University of Geneva who studied this, Francois Grin. Actually, the French government asked him to make a study of language cost in Europe.

TAM: That’s Duncan Charters, professor of languages and cultures at Principia College in Illinois, where he teaches Spanish.

CHARTERS: And he concluded that actually it would be cheaper to have Esperanto play that intermediary role.

TAM: How much cheaper? Back in 2005, Grin calculated that substituting the high cost of learning English with the low cost of Esperanto in non-English speaking countries could save the E.U. upwards of 25 billion euros annually.

CHARTERS: The French government wasn’t looking for that answer, but, actually, that was a very good point. The cost of learning of Esperanto is less just because it’s so much quicker.

TAM: … How much quicker? Well, obviously, ease of language learning depends on all kinds of factors: natural ability, age of acquisition, regular practice … But one study with a sample of Francophone children found that just 150 hours of Esperantic education resulted in the same level of proficiency as 1,000 hours of Italian, 1,500 hours of English, and 2,000 hours of German — making Esperanto an average of 10 times faster to learn than these natural languages. So what makes it so much faster and easier to learn?

Ruth KEVESS-COHEN: There are 16 basic rules of the language. For example, every noun ends in the letter “o.” Every adjective ends in the letter “a.” Every infinitive ends in the letter “i.” The future, present, and past have totally regular endings. There’s no need to learn any conjugations — they don’t exist in Esperanto.

TAM: That’s Ruth Kevess-Cohen, a geriatrics doctor in Maryland. In Esperanto, she goes by her middle name. In her spare time, she helped develop an Esperanto course for the online language site Duolingo … which she used to try and teach me Esperanto:

KEVESS-COHEN: This is lesson one of the Duolingo course, which starts out showing some pictures. Which of these is man?

TAM: I see a picture of a man with “viro.” I’m going to click that one.

DUOLINGO: La viro.

KEVESS-COHEN: By putting your finger here, you can see what it is. The word “la” means “the.” Just like in English, “the” is “la.” There’s no plural form.

TAM: There is no conjugation with that? “La” is always “the?”

KEVESS-COHEN: Right.

TAM: Okay, that is a commonality with English that makes it simpler than French.

KEVESS-COHEN: So to say, “I speak,” we say, “mi parolas.” Mi parolas Esperanton. Kaj vi, ĉu vi parolas Esperanton?

TAM: Mi parolas —

KEVESS-COHEN: Parolas.

TAM: Parolas Esperanton. That’s an “on,” is that the ending for a noun?

KEVESS-COHEN: “O” is the ending for a noun, and we add the “n” because it’s a direct object.

TAM: So Zamenhof originally wrote up 16 rules for the language, a couple of which you just heard — nouns end in “o,” direct objects in “n” — and every word is phonetic. He also compiled 900 roots derived mostly from Romance languages, which Esperantists then built into a rich vocabulary:

SCHOR: Users have taken these roots, which are very flexible and made words for new occasions, for new moments, for new technologies.

TAM: Esther Schor, Princeton Esperanto scholar again —

SCHOR: For example, the word for a cellphone is “poŝtelefono.” It’s a pocket phone. The word for a smartphone is “lerta fono,” a smart phone, literally. But I know an Esperantist who refers to his smartphone as “kromcerbo,” which means a spare brain. There’s a lot of wit. There’s a lot of invention. There’s a lot of play involved in coining words.

TAM: Duncan Charters also argues that Esperanto — in addition to being efficient and inventive — can serve as a gateway language:

CHARTERS: The good thing about it is once someone gets into a language that has enabled them to communicate with people around the world, they then want to learn other languages — a natural consequence. Then it’s not so much of an effort and a struggle to get students interested. It becomes more natural — just as in Europe, people much more naturally learn other languages because they’ve had a practical experience with the ones that they’ve learned.

TAM: Okay, but … practical experience? How does that work, if Esperantists may not even be able to find other people nearby to speak the language?

SCHOR: There is a system called “Pasporta Servo,” which means passport service, and it’s a network of Esperantists who agreed to host visiting Esperantists, usually young people, for up to three nights free of charge. There’s an enormous degree of trust in this Esperanto world. The word on the street is you arrive and someone hands you their car keys and goes to work.

TAM: As it turns out, Esperantists were practicing couchsurfing before it became a thing. Pasporta Servo started in 1974 as a small print booklet listing 39 hosts; it’s since moved online, and the latest edition contains 974 hosts from 81 countries. Again and again, I’d hear these kinds of stories from Esperantists who had traveled all over the world:

MURPHY: I don’t know if you realize that almost in every country there is Esperanto club, and it has been happening [for] 130 years. If you like the world, then it’s your oyster.

RAOLA: I got to know what [it’s like] living inside a Japanese family for two months, talk to them, eat their food, and go with them to places.

CHARTERS: I’ve traveled quite a bit in Spanish-speaking countries using Esperanto contacts. I’ve always found that those are the ones that really get me into the culture more …

David DOUGHERTY: I went to Kazakhstan this past year. This guy, his friend Vyacheslav, and his friend drove me 300 kilometers in a whole day touring some ancient historical sites. That was pretty amazing …

RAOLA: I have been to so many places, met so many people, have so many friends with which I feel at home, always contacting Esperantists everywhere. Yes, whatever curiosity of the islander-beyond-the-sea has been satisfied.

TAM: Do you feel like the Esperantists are exceptionally helpful and have that bond with you because it’s a niche community that you select into, as opposed to English being more common?

JOHNSON: That definitely helps.

TAM: That’s Christopher Johnson, a 29-year-old software engineer from North Carolina.

JOHNSON: It almost takes a naïve idealism to believe in Esperanto, or at least in that idea that you can make the world a better place by speaking a language. If you’re dedicated enough to learn this language and spend your time on it, you have to have that similar idealism. We have to have things in common. The other nice thing is there’s no real Esperanto-land where you can go. I don’t think I would have ever met somebody from Cuba without Esperanto. But it just naturally happened because you start meeting people in this small community, and people come from all over the world to kinda visit these things.

TAM: Yeah. I am curious about how you think through the tension between what seems to be this transcendent international aspect of Esperanto that reaches out and is very open to people and attracting more people to Esperanto, and the potential that if it actually continued spreading, that you wouldn’t actually have that sweet community anymore.

RAOLA: Sure, sharp question… I do understand that if Esperanto begins to become much larger in society that some of the selling points of today will vanish.

JOHNSON: Yes, I would not give my car keys to everyone. If Esperanto were to become a universal language, the negatives would be that things like this would die — the Landaj Kongresoj… Why would people want to travel miles and miles to meet other Esperantists if you can easily find them everywhere?

TAM: I found it fascinating that even this most idealistic language could be as much a boundary as a bridge — and that its ability to bridge might even require boundaries to create social trust between Esperantists. But then again, if Esperanto has survived through self selection, decade after decade, into this paradoxically idealistic and pragmatic language … then maybe its universality could only result from a world in which people universally chose to become idealistic and pragmatic. And who knows, maybe in that world, we could trust strangers with our home and car keys.

SCHOR: The strength of Esperanto is not in numbers. The strength of Esperanto is in its continuity over 130 years, without being passed down from generation to generation, without having money, without having armies. There it is. It’s really remarkably beautiful.

TAM: For now, despite stirrings of excitement about the uptick of Esperanto, very few in the community really believe that the day Zamenhof dreamed of — “La Fina Venko,” or “The Final Victory” — will be coming anytime in the near future. But in the meantime, those who learn it today have created a quirky, Brigadoonish family of visionaries … and for all its unworldliness, Esperanto is considered the world’s most successful invented language. Still, in some ways, the story of Esperanto teaches us as much about what makes a language fail as succeed: the power of, well, power, politics, and economics …

Michael GORDIN: The cases where someone has actually tried to construct a fair and ostensibly neutral form, things like Esperanto are widely treated as ridiculous or implausible.

TAM: That’s Michael Gordin, a historian at Princeton University. He’s studied the brief use of Esperanto for scientific communication in the early 1900s.

GORDIN: Even those people who try to come up with something calmer and kinder don’t often get rewards commensurate with that.

TAM: But it also, perhaps, raises some questions about our world. What does it say about us, that we find a language that combines peace and pragmatism ridiculous or implausible? And … could it be that idealism just might be rational?

RAOLA: The world, humankind, does not act very rationally. I teach chemistry, as I said, and I tell my students, “If people were rational, don’t you think that we should have long before adopted [the] general international system of units everywhere?” But we don’t. We still measure things in gallons and yards and feet. In that sense, it might not be in its short term that Esperanto, a rational solution for international communication, becomes the language of choice. But the important thing, what I always consider to be the goal of the movement, is keep it alive, keep it functioning, keep it suitable for expression of everything the human has expressed. Because maybe — I don’t know when, but when and if mankind finds itself ready for it, we need to have it alive. We need to have it ready. You can’t say, “Now we’re going to create it.” No, no, no. “Here it is. Take it. It’s yours.”

That was Stephanie Tam reporting from the curiously pragmatic and idealistic world of modern-day Esperanto.

Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Stephanie Tam. Our staff also includes Alison Hockenberry, Merritt Jacob, Greg Rosalsky, Eliza Lambert, Emma Morgenstern, Harry Huggins, and Brian Gutierrez; the music you hear throughout the episode was composed by Luis Guerra. A very special thanks to our intern Kent McDonald, and all those at the Esperanto Congress who assisted our efforts, including Derek Roff, Lee Miller, and Chuck Mays. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook, or via email at radio@freakonomics.com.

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