Why I Won't Learn Esperanto
- Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW
Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
From time to time people ask me about Esperanto.
Is it worth learning?
What are the benefits of being able to speak it?
Will it help me learn another language?
Well… I’ve decided to answer these questions finally.
I’ve gone into quite a bit of detail on the main reasons why I have absolutely zero interest in ever learning it and why I would not recommend it to anybody inquiring about its ‘benefits’.
Now, I know this will probably stir up a beehive (I wish I could say I’m sorry but facts don’t care about hurt feelings) though I do want to make it clear that if you do love Esperanto and it’s something you’re passionate about, I’m not trying to shoot you down in flames or discourage you here.
It sounds like I am but believe me I’m not.
By all means, pursue what you love.
While I’m personally not overly interested in constructed languages generally (conlangs for short), I do understand how they’re a fun hobby for many people and I find a lot of the work put into their creation seriously impressive.
As you’ll see here, my reasons for having no desire to learn Esperanto have very little to do with it being a conlang per se (or pointless arguments about its vocabulary or syntax).
Let’s get started.
1. Esperanto has always been a means to a political end
I always say that if you want to get to the bottom of what any movement is all about, look at its founder and origin first.
Who developed Esperanto and why was it developed?
If you think that Esperanto is just a basic constructed language put together by a language nerd back in the 1800’s that went viral, you’re wrong.
I also made the mistake of thinking its purpose was that simple.
Unlike other conlangs, Esperanto is 100% ideologically motivated.
It was made with a serious political objective in mind which still drives its propagation even today.
The language has always been used as a means to a political end (which is why dictatorships actively sought to suppress it in the early 20th century).
The bloke who created it, Ludwik Zamenhof, developed a political and religious philosophy (a cultish offshoot of Judaism that looked more like something straight out of The Communist Manifesto).
It’s clear that Zamenhof envisaged his made-up, simplified language as facilitating the breaking down of national and religious identity which he despised in his own community (including patriotism which he regarded as something evil). He also quite intolerantly spoke of free religious expression as a “barbarity”.
It’s this ideological baggage and taint that’s attached to the language that turns me off it completely.
Esperanto is the glossolalia of the faithful.
It also explains why so many dedicated Esperantists are by nature politically extreme.
Which gets me to my next point:
2. Esperantistan is an ideologically homogenous landscape
Wherever you travel, you meet people of all different persuasions.
No matter what language you learn, you’ll meet speakers all the time from the far left to the far right of the political spectrum. You’ll also meet non-believers, nominal believers, the devout and the extreme.
This is a normal thing.
This is a human thing.
The most crucial kind of diversity is the diversity of thought and opinion.
When you lose that, society’s in big trouble.
Communities everywhere around the world are filled with people who think very different things to each other and it’s this freedom that defines a healthy society.
Esperanto, being the ideological tool that it is, opposes this.
Even with constructed languages like Tolkien Elvish or Na’avi for example, if you look at the enthusiasts, you’ll find a wide array of people from all sorts of ideological backgrounds. They might be completely opposed to each other as far their opinions of the world are concerned but they come together for a common passion that they both share.
Now, I’m not saying that there absolutely aren’t any learners of Esperanto who don’t care about its politics or aren’t part of the status quo (see this depressing Reddit thread for example).
I went to NASK [North American Summer Esperanto Institute] a couple of times and felt totally isolated politically, and I’m not even the farthest right person I know. There are some great people at NASK and a lot of people willing to argue without getting offended, but a whole bunch of extreme far leftists who are OF COURSE politically correct (correct in their political views, as well as being PC beyond all reason).
I’m sure you could quite easily learn Esperanto without ever losing your mind as someone on the periphery of acceptable thought.
But since languages exist to enable us to communicate with a wider community of speakers, it’s imperative to ask yourself what kind of community are you restricting yourself to exactly?
Where’s the fun in spending time with ideological clones?
3. Not only does it have no culture but its adherents are delusional
Without doubt the most common and sensible reason why myself and so many others are turned off Esperanto is that it has no authentic culture.
Esperanto has no country or geographical ties to an ancestral homeland.
Unlike natural languages, you don’t learn Esperanto because you’re fascinated by a country, people group or location.
Outside of a few crackpots who decided to turn their kids into circus acts by raising them with Esperanto as a first language, it has no inter-generational identity or national/tribal history.
It’s therefore the same as any other conlang in this regard.
Esperantists always and predictably fire back with:
“Umm… you’re wrong. We do have a culture. We have Esperanto music, food, events, literature… etc.**”
To which I reply that this shows an incredibly shallow and poor understanding of what culture actually is.
It’s exactly this kind of ignorant interpretation of the term ‘culture’ that I denounce in almost everything I do and write.
And it’s not just me:
“…culture is defined as the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understanding that are learned through a process of socialization. These shared patterns identify the members of a culture group while also distinguishing those of another group.”
“Most social scientists today view culture as consisting primarily of the symbolic, ideational, and intangible aspects of human societies… The essence of a culture is not its artifacts, tools, or other tangible cultural elements but how the members of the group interpret, use, and perceive them.
And then this:
“Culture: learned and shared human patterns or models for living; day- to-day living patterns. these patterns and models pervade all aspects of human social interaction. Culture is mankind’s primary adaptive mechanism.”
These are just a few of the excellent definitions of ‘culture’ on this page for the University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition.
Look at the terms used to describe culture here.
Intangible aspects of human societies, patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs.
Culture is an incredibly deep and multi-layered phenomenon.
To limit it to things like music and cuisine is insanely ignorant and unfortunately indicative of how a lot of modern progressives treat culture even outside the Esperanto community.
These people limit culture to things like food, clothing and performances which means that ironically the people who are often the most vocal about cultural diversity are also usually the most culturally naïve.
Culture is infinitely more complex than kebabs, concerts and grass skirts.
The original goal for Esperanto in fact conflicts with the very nature of human cultures as defined above which serve to separate and distinguish humans as unique groups.
4. Esperanto evangelists aren’t just passionate – they’re fanatical
So yeah, the extreme thing.
Discussing Esperanto with an Esperantist is like discussing theology with a Jehovah’s Witness or animal rights with a PETA activist.
They have every single response memorized to the letter and argue until you give up.
They’ll try to convince you that even the gods themselves speak Esperanto.
It’s this extreme zeal that makes everything online written by Esperantists about Esperanto so horrid and unbearable to read.
But again this comes back to the ideological motivation that drives it.
We’re not just talking about a language here but a political movement.
As you probably know by now, I’m passionate about Arabic.
I like to tell people about it and share my experiences.
But if somebody gives me a reason why they don’t like it or have no reason to pursue it, I don’t go on the offense to try and convince them that Arabic is the greatest linguistic achievement in the history of mankind.
I frankly don’t care if you hate it.
Most Esperantists however are self-appointed evangelists.
5. It might help you learn other languages but at the expense of time best spent on the language most important to you
Any third language you learn is going to be easier than your second language.
Your fourth language is going to be a little easier than your third.
In fact, the more you learn, the easier it all becomes because (a) you become familiar with various language families and a wider range of shared vocabulary and (b) your metalinguistic awareness increases.
This means that the more grammatical concepts you get your head around, the easier it becomes for you to recognize them in other languages.
So naturally, Esperanto is going to make you more aware of how, say, agglutinative languages work.
But it won’t necessarily save you any time and in fact is more likely to delay your real goals of learning the language you actually want to learn.
It would be like learning the guitar because you really want to learn the violin.
Sure you’ll learn about music theory, get a bit of familiarity with a string instrument that’s kinda similar but at the end of day, if you spend 6 months learning the guitar, that’s 6 months you could have been investing into the violin.
More importantly this is time you should be spending with your target language community.
This is the time that you should be using to acculturate.
My first language took years for me to pick up serious momentum and I was really slow at first but those first months and years were the most important, formative years for me in terms of acculturation.
The whole process of spending time with the target language community even though you’re grappling with difficult, new language concepts, is so incredibly important.
Not just important. Crucial.
And instead you want to hang out with a political cult and learn a practically useless conlang?
Talk about epic time wasting.
6. Esperanto has failed – not that we needed it anyway
Zamenhof and his followers envisaged a world where Esperanto was the global second language; the lingua franca with no baggage or bias.
It’s so easy that even an illiterate peasant could pick it up quickly, bridging the communication gap and ultimately breaking down hostility between all peoples.
A true international language.
The common argument against this of course is that we already have that.
It’s called English (and to a lesser extent languages like French and Spanish in the former colonies).
Esperantists are uncomfortable with this fact.
They’re uncomfortable with the reality that one of the natural byproducts of colonialism was the very thing that they’ve been trying desperately to achieve. Yes, English is a “harder” language grammatically but despite its relative difficulty, it’s still accomplished what Esperanto could not.
We no longer talk about England as being the final authority on what constitutes correct or incorrect English either – there’s American English, Australian English, South African English for example.
Linguists now agree that there are many other varieties such as Indian English and Singaporean English as well which are an authority unto themselves.
The Internet is basically unusable without English too.
The Esperanto dream has been fulfilled naturally whether they like it or not and people in every corner of the world are under increasing pressure to learn English simply to function in the 21st century.
English has succeeded where Esperanto failed miserably.
Now, I’m actually opposed to having a global language personally. This includes English.
We’re rapidly losing endangered languages and more than half of them will be lost forever by the end of this century.
For that reason combined with the fact that we already have an international lingua franca whether we like it or not, a constructed medium like Esperanto is absolutely unnecessary.
So now you know why I won’t learn Esperanto.
Disclaimer: All points shared in this article are my own opinions, perspectives and reasons for choosing not to learn Esperanto.
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