IETUGL Part 2: Esperanto – a universal language?

In a five-part blog series I am proposing to answer the question: Is English the ultimate global language? Read part 1 to this blog series if you’ve missed it.

Part 2: Esperanto – a universal language?

There are somewhere between 3000 and 6000 languages spoken worldwide. Whilst a language makes the individuals that speak it unique, it also divides them from those who do not understand the same language. Through language, we identify our own place within a social and cultural order. But what happens when someone steps out of their own ‘order’ and attempts to interact with another one? Whose language do they use? How do they decide? The answer may seem simple now – English. But how exactly did English – reputedly not the easiest language to learn – become the universal language of the world, if that is really what it is? It wasn’t always that way.

There have been many attempts to create universal language, from scratch. Esperanto, the most successful of all (thus far), was created in 1877 by Ludovic Zamenhof, who grew up in multi–language environment. He was born in Russian Poland into a Jewish family, at a time of conflict. His father was a teacher of languages and he was brought up speaking at least four different languages. All of these elements influenced the creation of Esperanto, and pushed Zamenhof’s determination to change the way people from different language backgrounds communicate. “Ludovic’s language could not itself abolish hatred; but it was something useful and harmless that might make a contribution to human understanding.” – Marjorie Boulton (from, the book, Zamenhof: Creator of Esperanto).

Esperanto was created as an easy–to–learn language, as well as being politically neutral. It had a set of simple rules including; every word is read as it is written and the accent is always on the penultimate syllable. “Zamenhof outlined the three chief problems that had to be solved; first, such a language must be very easy to learn; secondly, it must be possible to use it at once for international communication; and thirdly, the inventor had to find some means of conquering the indifference of the world and inducing people in large numbers to use the language as a living language.”

Esperanto was meant to “foster peace and international understanding between people with different regional/national languages” (source: wikipedia) which, to some extent, Zamenhof’s language did do. But more still needs to be done for this to really have an impact – starting with people simply learning the language and teaching it to others. Perhaps this is happening, but progress is slow – far slower than English. There are no precise figures for how many Esperanto speakers there are worldwide, different sources state numbers ranging from 100,000 to 2 million. (The number of native English speakers alone is more than 350 million– not taking into account English as a secondary language). Esperanto is still seen as an alternative or addition to the increasing use of English across the world, offering a language that is easier to learn. But as it is also less widely understood, could Esperanto ever be a competitor for the English language?

Interestingly, one of the books that I am currently working on in the studio features an article about Esperanto, with exercises based on the text – it is clearly not dead or forgotten just yet! Although being used in an ELT book means that Esperanto, as a subject matter, is actually being used to aid students in the learning of English. Not at all what Zamenhof envisioned over 130 years ago.

Esperanto was meant primarily as a second language, but with few speakers worldwide when you compare it to other second languages, such as English, what benefits does Esperanto actually have?

Find out in Part 3 next week.

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  1. Bill Chapman April 24, 2014 at 9:55 am - Reply

    You are right that Esperanto is “clearly not dead or forgotten just yet”. I see Esperanto as a remarkable success story. It has survived wars and revolutions and economic crises and continues to attract people to learn and speak it. Esperanto works. I’ve used it in speech and writing in about seventeen countries over recent years. I recommend it to anyone, as a way of making friendly local contacts in other countries.

    I don’t see Esperanto as competing with English. It offers something extra. I’m not sure that this series of blogs (so far) makes it clear how useful Esperanto can be to anyone interested in the wider world. I’ve made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise. Over recent years I have had guided tours of Berlin, Douala, Yerevan and Milan in this planned language. I have visited the homes of Esperanto speakers in a dozen countries.

    I have discussed philosophy with a Slovene poet, humour on television with a Bulgarian TV producer. I’ve discussed what life was like in East Berlin before the wall came down and in Armenia when it was a Soviet republic, how to cook perfect spaghetti, the advantages and disadvantages of monarchy, and so on. I recommend Esperanto as a very practical way to
    overcome language barriers.

  2. emc design April 24, 2014 at 10:16 am - Reply

    Hi Bill, thank you for your reply. It’s amazing to hear how you’ve been using Esperanto to communicate all over the world. I think it definitely warrants more exploration on our part, if you would like to write about a 1000 words on your experiences we would be delighted to post it as an official response and guest blog post. Thanks, Sophie

  3. Zoe April 24, 2014 at 11:21 am - Reply

    If I remember rightly, Benny Lewis, author of the currently popular Fluent In Three Months language learning book, also recommends learning Esperanto as a stepping stone to learning other languages, not just English!

  4. neilnachum April 25, 2014 at 3:04 am - Reply

    Esperanto has assisted me in 34 countries. It has made me a better more positive person. I recently visited Vietnam. I remain in contact with dozens of Vietnamese Esperanto speakers. The manager of the modest hotel I used said he rarely sees USA Americans. Lively young Esperanto movements also exist in Nepal and Indonesia. I’m a recently retired teacher of English and have a b l o g about other professional language teachers who prefer Esperanto for international communication.

  5. Enrique April 25, 2014 at 4:04 am - Reply

    >Is English the ultimate global language?

    Many of those people sent to international conventions
    because they claim to speak English, aren’t capable to
    understand everything spoken, and much less speak the
    language. Interpreters help to understand what is going
    on at the stage, but don’t help the communication between

    If everybody at the convention speak English … Why there are
    plenty of interpreters and translators at those conventions?
    There aren’t interpreters at the Esperanto conventions.

    >Esperanto – a universal language?

    It is universal because there are speakers in most countries.
    It is not because most people still don’t know that Esperanto
    exists and works very well. I never say that Esperanto is “the”
    Universal Language.

    >The number of native English speakers alone is more than
    >350 million

    A big number of them don’t know how to write understandable
    English. Many of them don’t speak an understandable English,
    or are capable to read. Many speakers don’t understand the
    English spoken by English natives from other countries.

    >could Esperanto ever be a competitor for the English language?

    Right now Esperanto doesn’t compete with English, but it is
    a very good complement. There are many situations, where
    Esperanto is much better than English.

    In the countries whose main language is English, nobody will
    pay special attention to me, just because I speak English.
    I speak Spanish. I can say the same thing for Spanish.

    In most countries around the world, many Esperanto speakers
    will give me their time and attention, just because I speak
    Esperanto. Some will even invite me to their houses.

    >but with few speakers worldwide when you compare it to
    >other second languages, such as English, what benefits does
    >Esperanto actually have?

    People learn Esperanto to contact people from other cultures.
    They want to talk to me. I cannot say the same about any
    other language.

    I learned Esperanto, and later, I learned English. I use Spanish,
    Esperanto, and English every day. In most situations, when
    I use one of these languages, the other two aren’t suitable.

    I have spoken Esperanto in 20 countries, including Japan,
    Korea, China, Vietnam, Austria, Denmark, USA, Canada …

    20 Reasons to learn and use Esperanto

    This page has 10 pictures of people that helped me in Hanoi,
    Vietnam, and Seoul, Korea.

  6. sinjoroeng April 25, 2014 at 5:05 am - Reply

    The Indonesia Ministry of Foreign Affairs listed Esperanto for the young diplomats.

  7. Raymond Gerard April 25, 2014 at 11:00 am - Reply

    I don’t think it’s possible to create a language from scratch. Esperanto was certainly not.
    Gratulojn pro via blogo

  8. […] ← IETUGL Part 2: Esperanto – a universal language? […]

  9. […] I am proposing to answer the question: Is English the ultimate global language? Read posts 1, 2 and 3 to catch […]

  10. oogenhand May 14, 2014 at 6:59 pm - Reply

    Reblogged this on oogenhand.

  11. […] the ultimate global language? This is the fifth and final post of this blog series. Read posts 1, 2, 3 and 4 to catch […]

  12. […] the second part of the series I wrote about Esperanto, a language created specifically for the purpose of uniting […]

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