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Ulrich Matthias Esperanto The New Latin for the Church and for Ecumenism


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6.4 The advantages of Esperanto


In 2001 a German teacher named Michael Scherm estimated that only 5 -7% of Germans can express themselves well in English.174 Similar research in 1989 came up with much the same result. A survey by an advertising agency which invited Europeans to translate sound recordings of three English phrases into their native languages concluded that "the truly correct understanding of English [in Western Europe] fell well below our most pessimistic expectations" being limited to about 6% of the population.175

A more superficial question produces a more positive result. A press release from the European Commission on 20.02.2001 reported the "surprising" information that in a survey of 16,000 Europeans more than half (53%) "know a second language". However, an article published on the same day by the German news agency dpa indicated a less rosy picture:
Foreign language shortfall

Half the citizens of the EU not competent in a foreign language

Almost half of the citizens of the EU are not competent in a foreign language. At the inauguration of the European Year of Languages in the Swedish city of Lund last Monday, EU Commissioner for Education and Culture Viviane Reding announced that a new survey of 16,000 people in the 15 countries of the EU had found that 47.3% speak only their mother tongue.

In 1996/7 a Commission of the German Federal Ministry for Education, Science, Research and Technology investigated the linguistic competence of tertiary students. A detailed result was published on the Internet.

An extract follows:

In chapter 5 we indicated that the students' knowledge of English is not very good. Only 10% of them have a good knowledge of more than one foreign language and there is no sign of a wish to change. Only 5% of the sample would be interested in a course in one of the less widely-known European languages.176

Furthermore, in Germany the European Year of Languages has demonstrated that interest in foreign languages is largely confined to English. According to West German radio WDR, in this European Year, "interest should be directed towards the 'smaller' languages, which are under attack from the great world languages and can hardly gain any attention."177 The Culture Ministry of the federal state of Nordrhein-Westfalen published a list of events planned for the Year. In it there were 256 proposals relating to English. Not one proposal explicity mentioned either Finnish or Swedish. Neither was Danish mentioned, though there was one proposal for a course in Denmark: Life in a Danish family. However the language used would be English.178

Returning to the previously-mentioned survey of students' linguistic competence we find that:

The need to deal with elementary errors in the usual language of communication, English, demonstrates on the other hand how far we still are from the ideal image of the multilingual European. This aim of European education policy, directed towards mastery of "an ever increasing number of the Community languages" can be seen not only to belong to the remote future, but in fact to be unrealistic, when one observes for example the role of English in the headlong evolution of the Internet.

This clearly shows that there is still a sufficient need for a language which is both easily learnt and neutral. Let us analyse these advantages of Esperanto.

According to the many and varied experiments in schools, and also to the experience of the majority of its speakers, Esperanto is from 3 to 10 times easier to learn than national languages such as English or French. In the seventies for instance, Helmar Frank of the University of Paderborn established that students could make themselves better understood in Esperanto after 200 hours of school instruction than in English after 1,500 hours.179

There are several factors which allow Esperanto to be more easily learnt:

1. Regularity: In Esperanto everything is written as it pronounced, pronounced as written; there are no irregular verbs nor complicated declensions; basic grammar consists of 16 rules. In Esperanto, anything which is logical, is also correct.

2. The method of word formation: one needs to memorize a relatively small vocabulary because it is normal to form a great many related words by changing the ending and/or by means of affixes. Thus from 'sano' (health), one can derive the words "malsana," (ill), "sanigi" (to cure), "sanigxi" (to recover, be cured), "malsanulo" (a patient, someone who is ill) and many more.

3. The international character of the vocabulary: a great deal of it can be understood by a large proportion of the world's population without previous study, for example: telefono, muziko, familio, religio, danci, promesi, diskuti; interesa, eleganta, simpla, etc.

This ease of learning makes the study of the language enjoyable. Further, the clarity of Esperanto could resolve some of the problems that arise from unclear pronounciation of English. The German journal Südkurier reported at the end of 1999 that 'among the 37 worst aviation catastrophies since 1996 at least 13 were caused by language problems'.180

Esperanto provides a valuable basis for learning other languages. It is often said that this is also true of Latin, since someone who knows Latin is able to learn other languages (especially some European languages) more rapidly. While that is true, there is a considerable difference: to learn Latin one has to take on a notable amount of 'ballast', for example complicated declensions and conjugations. This takes a great deal of time, but has little relevance to learning other languages. Esperanto, on the other hand, requires no such memorising. The study of Esperanto consists largely in recognising the 'roles' of words, (nouns, verbs, adjectives) and the function of phrase-elements, subject, predicate, object, etc. This significantly helps in the study of other languages.

Experiments in Hungarian schools in the 60's showed that 200 hours' study of Esperanto could save 250, 300 or even 500 hours in subsequent study of a 'national' language, depending on whether the foreign language was Russian, German, English or French.181 Prof. Helmar Frank, mentioned above, found later that 160 hours of "language orientation instruction" in Esperanto could save 26% of the time required for subsequent learning of English.182 He calculated that it saves more time than that spent in learning it. This saving is most notable among less talented students.183

Present language policies significantly disadvantage those students who lack ability in language learning. Even after great efforts many fail to read or speak even one foreign language to any useful extent. German schools offer mainly English and French, which are difficult enough, while the courses in Esperanto which may be taught in high-schools or by local Esperanto groups, usually consist of ten or twenty hours. Making full-time Esperanto classes available as an alternative to the other language classes, would be a step towards equal rights. It would enable students to make themselves understood satisfactorily in at least one foreign language and at the same time it would provide a base for learning other languages. This 'social argument' for Esperanto is not often presented, though an interesting report from the US a few years ago told how students from higher classes asked to be allowed to learn Esperanto when they saw how well 'less gifted' students were benefiting from it.

In an earlier research project into language-learning, Esperanto was taught to different age-groups grouped by intelligence quotient. The groups aged 20 to 25 gained twice as much on testing as did the group aged 9 to 19, though the younger group had twice as much instruction. (Thorndike, E.L. et al, Adult Learning, Macmillan, New York, 1928.) This finding may not be valid for ethnic languages, but is relevant to planning the wider use of Esperanto. The fact that so much less time is needed to learn Esperanto than to learn English means that more time can be given to other languages and cultures and even to the social sciences.

The argument that the use of Esperanto in international organizations could save money may at first glance seem superficial. Every year the various institutions of the European Union spend about 1.5 billion Euros on interpretation and translation.184 If the question is asked whether there is any point in trying to reduce this expenditure, the answer may lie in the great number of projects in the fields of education and medecine in developing countries - not to mention responses to disaster - which lack funding because the wealthy states cannot provide sufficient money. Often a few thousand Euros could lessen the suffering of many people.185

The ease and neutrality of Esperanto could also contribute to making a level playing-field not only for different populations, but for rich and poor. For example, in developing countries - and not only there - wealthy parents send their children to schools and universities in Britain or the US in the hope that they will, among other things, learn to speak English fluently. This can boost their professional careers. The introduction of a language which Africans and Asians can master without travel or expense would surely be a step towards equal rights.

6.5 Deeper considerations
"If you wish to bring peace, create justice" says a proverb based on Isaiah 32.17. There are many forms of injustice which can provoke conflict and one of these is disdain for the dignity and equal rights of other languages. History shows that it is not possible to rule one people using the language of another. The state falls apart, as did the Hapsburg Empire, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia. When the subject people is relatively weak, their language dies; this is what now appears to be happening to Scots-Gaelic in Britain, Sorabi in Germany, Kashubi in Poland, the language of the Sami in northern Scandinavia and many others.

In his prayer as High Priest (John 17) Jesus prayed for the unity of believers. Esperanto could be of great help to this unity. A common language brings people together, and this is especially true of a language which has an "interna ideo" of promoting understanding and peace between peoples. Esperanto creates a sense of closeness, solidarity and mutual help unrestricted by national borders. In its constitution IKUE emphasizes that the aim of the organization is "that all may be one."

Jesus often encouraged his disciples to strive for peace (Matt 5.9 "Blessed are the peacemakers" or Mark 9.50 "be at peace one with another".)

A mere seven years after the publication of Esperanto, Leo Tolstoy drew attention to its value in these words:

I have often observed that men become enemies when there arise barriers to mutual understanding. For this reason Esperanto is undoubtedly a Christian activity, bringing nearer the Reign of God - the activity which is the principal and unique mission of human life.186

Today, when Esperanto gatherings bring together - for example - young Poles and Germans, their common language enables them to get to know each other and become friends. They are able to overcome mistrust and prejudice; past injustices do not concern them.

The tragic events of 11 September 2001 have shown how important is the peaceful dialogue between different people and nations all around the world. Esperanto enables this dialogue on a basis of equality. Among Esperantists nowadays there is a dense network of cross-border friendships, banishing xenophobia. Anyone who has many friends in other countries has an enlarged horizon and is able to see political conflicts from both sides. Three examples follow.

During an international seminar of young German esperantists in Traben-Trarbach (near Luxembourg) at the end of 1988, Inna Vozlinskaja - a young Russian - spoke about perestroika. When someone asked her what she thought about the struggles of the Baltic states for independence she replied, presumably as she had been taught in school, "We Russians gave a great deal of help to those countries, and now they want to separate from us. If you had a friend whom you helped, and later on he dumped you, you would not like that very much." A young Hungarian, from a country where there was already freedom of expression, replied, "I don't believe that those Baltic States ever requested that help".

Some ten years later, during the conflict in Kosovo in 1999, young Serbs sent Internet messages to their Esperantist friends all over the world to awaken their sympathy for the sufferings of the people of Yugoslavia. They endeavoured to explain the reasons which made Yugoslavia persecute Albanian "criminals" and refuse to accept the Treaty of Rambouillet. But at the same time they wanted to know what their friends thought about this. Because of their personal friendships, each side considered the other's opinions with respect, so that before long a message from a young Serb included the words, "I am ashamed of the crimes of my fellow countrymen".

In August 2000, the 56th congress of the World Esperanto Youth Organisation (TEJO) was held in Hong Kong. While discussing religious life in China a German asked a Chinese girl whether she thought of the Dalai Lama as a good man or a bad one. "Bad" she replied without a second's hesitation, and began to deplore Tibetan separatism. However, in friendly discussion she learned for the first time about his peaceful work for religious liberty and the rights of minorities. Since she already knew that Esperantists in other countries work for humanity and peace she accepted the new knowledge with an open mind.

The more often these international exchanges of opinion occur, the more nationalistic habits of looking at conflicts subjectively, from one side only, are modified.

We want to emphasize again that peace is central to Esperanto culture. There are people of extremely varied world views and political convictions to be found among esperantists, but in general they can be counted on to try to smooth the way towards understanding rather than solve conflict by force. Students who take a deeper interest in Esperanto will encounter Zamenhof's "homaranismo": that might do more for a peaceful future for humanity than reading Caesar's Gallic Wars in Latin class.

If the Church would decide to choose Esperanto rather than English it could by this means send a signal that the peoples of the world, rather than striving single-mindedly for consumption, should strive for peace and humanitarianism.

6.6 Criticism and response

There are many objections to Esperanto.187 Some of them - for instance the assertion that it is a dead language - we need not take very seriously. But there are other arguments which deserve to be discussed in depth. We have already endeavoured to refute the notion that Esperanto could be a threat to cultural diversity. The parallel argument, that Esperanto is a "European-centred language" and therefore does not offer sufficient advantages to the peoples of Asia, must be considered seriously.

It is undoubtedly true that Asians have more difficulty in learning Esperanto than Europeans do. But on the other hand we recognise that few Europeans are ready to learn an Asian language and there is no fully-functional planned language which endeavours to incorporate as wide a variety of cultures as possible on equal terms. Esperanto is therefore in first place as an alternative to English or French, which are full of difficulties which do not exist in Esperanto. Both the pronunciation and spelling of English are bewildering; verbs in French have 2,450 endings, which must be memorised. Esperanto, as well as having complete phoneme-grapheme correspondence, is able to function well with only twelve verb endings. If the ease of Esperanto can be attributed to three principles: regular grammar, the system of word-construction and the internationality of its vocabulary, the first two at least offer serious advantages to people whose mother-tongue is not of Indo-European origin.

An excerpt from the Report presented to the General Council of the League of Nations in Geneva in September 1922 indicates that Asians find the language relatively easy.

Experiments have shown that Esperanto is very easily learnt, because children in Europe and America learn it in one year by means of two hours study per week, while children in the Far East can learn in two years, given the same number of lessons, while they need six years' study of four or five hours per week to learn other European languages.188

This report is based on information from teachers of Esperanto and so should not be considered entirely objective, but it does imply that it is not only between Europeans that Esperanto facilitates understanding.

Many Europeans have found evidence of this during various Esperanto congresses in Asia and Africa, for example the International Youth Congress (IJK) in Hong Kong in August 2000. Even though in that IJK the average language level was not quite as high as in similar European events, there were enough participants from Japan, Korea, China, etc. who spoke the language excellently and who reported that for them Esperanto is not merely easier than English, but also easier than other Asian languages. And the enthusiasm of many Asian young people suggests that Esperanto is no less acceptable in Asia than in Europe.

The other serious arguments still proffered against Esperanto are that it lacks culture, and that the language has no chance of gaining general approval.

Consider the first of these arguments. The assertion that Esperanto culture is not as rich as that of the major national languages is true enough, even though there are some tens of thousands of books and booklets in Esperanto, prose and poetry both original and translated. One can also point out that this culture could be enriched very quickly if Esperanto were to become more popular or were to receive more support from national states or from international organisations.189

But sometimes the accusation is that Esperanto is lacking in quality as well as in quantity; it is said "not to have a soul".190

Esperantists respond to that criticism by saying, for example, that "Esperanto was developed from the cultural heritage of the European languages" and "contains within itself the soul of the European cultural languages", but sometimes they also cite specific writers who have given the language its soul: "The spirit of the language lives in this uninhibited and faultless style" wrote Kálmán Kalocsay about the Polish poet Kazimierz Bein (Kabe) who, between 1904 and 1911, was famous in the Esperanto movement for the style of his translations and for the first popular single-language Esperanto dictionary.191

The philosopher Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970) learnt Esperanto when he was about fourteen and he reported:

When I took part in an Esperanto congress192 a few years later, it seemed to me almost a miracle when I found how easily I could follow the lectures and discussions in the large public conferences and how well I could take part in private conversation with foreigners from many countries, while I had never succeeded in conversing in the languages I had studied at school for many years. The high point of the Congress was the performance of Goethe's "Iphigenie" in Esperanto. For me it was both edifying and extremely moving to listen to this drama in a new medium filled with the spirit of humanity, enabling thousands of spectators from many lands to understand it, and so feel their hearts united.

In the light of an experience such as this, one cannot take very seriously the arguments of those who say that an international auxiliary language may be useful for commerce and even possibly for the natural sciences, but that it is not a suitable means of communication for personal matters or for discussion of social and cultural sciences, much less for novels and drama. It is noticeable that most of those who make these assertions have no practical experience of the language.193

On the 10th of September 1993, the International PEN club accepted the Esperanto PEN Centre as a member and thereby acknowledged Esperanto to be a literary language. At present the most famous writer in Esperanto literature is the Scot William Auld. Since 1998 the Esperanto PEN Centre has more than once nominated him for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Here is his view of Esperanto as a literary language:

Most people are able to grasp the idea of translation into an international language. Less readily accepted is our claim that Esperanto is, of all the languages in the world, the one into which translation is most satisfactory. And it is extremely hard for most people to grasp that it is possible to write original works, especially poetry, in Esperanto. These people say, correctly, that to write poetry one must experience and feel emotion directly in the language in which one writes. What they cannot imagine is that a great many people in the world do just that: for many people, Esperanto is a language of feeling - and it is their own. Many Esperantists are for various reasons able to attach to the International Language that feeling of reverence with which others regard their mother-tongue. This is a fact, however disagreeable it may be to some nationalists, and the original literature in Esperanto derives from this fact.194

Let us turn to the final argument against Esperanto - that the language hasn't any chance against English. This is a very pessimistic sentiment. A language barrier of considerable height still exists in the world today, and the idea of demolishing it with the help of Esperanto is still very much an issue. "If the world depended on pessimists, we would still be living in caves"195 said the Brazilian Esperantist Walter Francini in his book "Esperanto sen antauxjugxoj" (Esperanto without prejudice). In the introduction to this book, published in 1978, he wrote: "It is easier to break down the Berlin Wall than to get rid of the prejudice in the mind of a single person."196 Eleven years later the Berlin Wall did in fact fall down, but prejudice remains. Francini believes that if enough people work tirelessly and optimistically for Esperanto, "the weight of facts" will in the end let it win the day. He also points out that the metric system, proposed in 1791, was adopted only step-by-step (and in some countries such as Britain and the USA it has not been adopted yet). Similarly, Christianity penetrated society only gradually and, even today, only to a certain degree.197

Now many speakers of even the most powerful languages humbly acknowledge the takeover by the English language. Joschka Fischer, the German Minister for External Affairs, said in July 2000: "Instead of competing in vain against English as a lingua franca, it would be more profitable for us to use our energy to win for German the role of a second foreign language."198 The head of the Alliance Francaise in Brussels expressed even deeper resignation when she said, "On account of the power of English, efforts to spread French culture are a waste of time".199

In spite of the role of English, learning French or German can still be profitable. Similarly, Esperantists sometimes insist that their language has value even if it remains the means of communication of only a minority. After some not very difficult - even enjoyable - study, a new world opens; one finds oneself in touch with new friends and, almost without noticing - helping understanding between peoples.

While some believe that Esperanto should not now try to compete with English, others point out that its future depends on political decisions. Umberto Eco remarks that Albanians and Tunisians learn Italian quite easily, simply because technology allows them to watch Italian television. According to him, it would be even easier to accustom different peoples to the international auxiliary language. A political decision, accompanied by an international campaign in the media, could spread such a language very rapidly. He adds, "Even if that political decision has not been taken and it seems difficult to bring it about, that does not mean that it will not happen in the future."200

Esperanto would become popular if it could win more support. In 1998 the Federal Government, together with the states, cities and counties, spent about 170 million Euros on education, research and science.201 One can reasonably suppose that at least 10 million Euros were spent, directly or indirectly, on teaching the English language. If we compare this with the budgets of the Esperanto organizations - in the year 2000 the German Esperanto Youth, the German Esperanto Association and other local organizations in Germany may have spent about EUR 150,000 - we can see that in Germany there is about 100,000 times more financial support for the English language, especially if we add the expenses of private firms. The future of Esperanto depends on whether these proportions change.

If we are asked whether Esperanto will ever "triumph" we should not say that we are satisfied with being able to use it as it is. The following would be a more mature reply: "I do not know whether Esperanto will achieve general acceptance, since we cannot foresee the future, but I think it both possible and desirable, so I endeavour to bring it about."

We hope that many will not only agree with the following (unfortunately rather pessimistic) opinion of Umberto Eco, but will take it as an encouragement to try harder:

If pressure to multiply the number of languages accompanies the process of European unification, the only solution has to be acceptance of a European language of communication. The only objections that still exist are those noted by Fontanelle, found also in d'Alambert's introduction to the Encyclopedie, that is, the egotism of governments, which never distinguish themselves by efforts to improve human society. No matter how irrefutable the need for an "auxiliary language" may be, the human race, which is incapable of agreeing on the most urgent action to save the planet from environmental catastrophe, hardly seems capable of painlessly healing the wounds of Babel.202

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