Chapter 22
Esperanto and Education

Copyight © 2002 Sylvan Zaft.  Here is the 22nd chapter of Esperanto: A Language for the Global Village.  You may make electronic copies and paper copies for your personal use, and you may freely distribute verbatim copies which include this notice provided that you do not charge for these copies.  You may not post this material to any site. You are invited to insert links to this site. For any other use, including publication, you must first get permission. 

A couple of my favorite anecdotes about how hard it is to learn foreign languages has to do with Russian.  One came in a letter to my daughter from a Russian pen pal.  Andrei had devoted many thousands of hours to studying and reading English.  He had become interested in English as a boy, and because of all of the time that he had spent with the language, he reached the point where he knew English at a very high level.  Of course from time to time he would make little mistakes of the kind that foreigners make in a second language.  However he wrote English with fewer errors than a great many native speakers whom I have taught.

One day he was visiting in Moscow, some five thousand miles west of his home in what was then the Soviet Far East.  He saw a young foreign woman, who was vainly trying to communicate something to a policeman.  Andrei walked up to her and said in English, “May I be of assistance?”

“Oh, thank God!” she exclaimed.  She was relieved to find someone who spoke English.  She was a young American who had recently graduated from college and was taking a tour abroad.  She had become separated from her tour group and did not know the way back to the hotel.

Andrei gave her directions and then asked if he might walk back with her so he could practice his English.  She agreed and they had a nice conversation on the way.

Before he left her he asked her what her major in college had been.

It was Russian.

The second anecdote is told by Claude Piron in Le défi des langues.  One day Piron was in a bookstore when a woman asked the clerk for his opinion about a book.  “What do you think?” she asked.  “How much time would each lesson take?”

The clerk leafed through the book which was entitled Le russe en 90 leçons (Russian in 90 Lessons.)  Then he suggested that she study one lesson each day, spending forty-five minutes or an hour on each lesson. 

The woman immediately plunked down her money for the book and exclaimed, “Great!  In three months I will know Russian!”

Piron said nothing.  However, he quietly remembered how much time he had put into that language.  First, he studied it on his own for two years.  Then, as a university student, he took four years of Russian.  After that he spent ten hours a day on Russian for a year at a highly prestigious school for translators at the University of Geneva.  He went on to professionally translate Russian texts for many years at the United Nations and the World Health Organization.  He translated a great many thousands of pages and listened to hundreds of speeches in the language.  In spite of all of this he has to admit, “When I get the idea to read Solzhenitsyn or Pravda, there are entire passages which I do not understand:  I need the dictionary.”

And the woman in the bookstore thought she would know Russian in three months!

What would she know?  Maybe she would be able to say “It is a nice day” and “Where is the lavatory?” and things on that level.  Certainly she would not be able to read an ordinary news article in a newspaper or describe her symptoms to a physician or watch a movie in Russian and understand what was going on.

In a great many countries including the United States there is a very large trade in books, tapes, CD-ROMs, videos and other paraphernalia that purport to teach foreign languages as easily as the woman in the bookstore anticipated learning Russian.  None of the advertisements for this equipment suggest that the student should expect to invest an enormous amount of time in order to attain some useful knowledge of the language. 

Throughout the United States students spend years studying their foreign languages, and yet very few of them ever reach the point where they are comfortable carrying on a normal conversation, writing a normal letter or reading articles in a newspaper or magazine.  The vast majority of them have to admit to having had no practical benefit from their years of study other than some vague “appreciation” for the foreign language to which they have devoted many hundreds of hours or even more than a thousand hours.

The cost-benefit ratio for all of this study is minuscule.

Many of these individuals think that there is something wrong with them, that they are somehow deficient in their ability to learn a foreign language either through self-study or by taking classes.  They think they have some kind of block that ordinary people do not have.

In fact there is nothing at all wrong with them.  It is as though they are victims of a gigantic hoax.  Mastering a foreign language without spending a good amount of time in a country where that language is spoken is a very rare achievement.  It takes an investment of a few thousand hours to get a firm working knowledge of a foreign language, and the knowledge thus attained is by no means equivalent to the knowledge of a native speaker.  To reach the level that Andrei attained in English means spending a great many thousands of highly motivated hours with the foreign language.

The Case for Studying Esperanto

Compared with the number of people who speak the great national languages which are commonly taught in American schools, relatively few people speak Esperanto.  It would obviously be very useful to know languages such as French or Spanish or Japanese, but the sad truth is that out of all of the millions of Americans who have invested even years of study in these languages very, very few really know them.  Think of the people you know who have studied foreign languages, and then ask yourself how many of them can use a language that they studied in a normal way.

It used to be said that studying Latin was the hallmark of an educated person.  Since tens of thousands of English words are of Latin derivation, studying Latin strengthened students’ English vocabularies.  In addition, it was claimed that the study of Latin taught students something about the way in which all languages work.  Teachers maintained that Latin prepared students to successfully learn other foreign languages.  They also insisted that studying Latin strengthened the mind by teaching students learn how to think.

Eventually schools and colleges dropped Latin as a requirement.  The study of Latin demanded an enormous investment of time and energy because Latin carries the same kinds of learning burdens which have already been noted for languages such as French and English.  Latin has a great many grammatical complexities and irregularities, endless paradigms of verb, noun and adjective endings that must be memorized, illogical idiomatic expressions that must be mastered, and so on.

If studying Esperanto were required for just one year, students with a reasonable amount of effort and motivation would gain many of these same benefits.  Since much of the vocabulary of Esperanto is derived directly or indirectly from Latin, the study of Esperanto would strengthen students’ English vocabularies.  Since learning Esperanto shows students how languages are put together without burdening them with committing to memory enormous numbers of exceptions to rules, students would be able to become fluent in this relatively easy language.  Once fluent in one language, they would be better prepared to grapple with more difficult languages.  Because students of Esperanto are free to combine morphemes to create new words, they would gain practice in logically building and logically figuring out the meanings of complex words.

How Esperanto Generally Helps the Study of Foreign Languages

Most people would agree that it makes sense to master a new kind of activity in a simpler form before going on to tackle it in an extremely complicated form.  Piano students learn to play scales and simple tunes long before they tackle sonatas.  In a similar way it makes sense for students to learn an easier language before they go on to deal with a language whose complexities are much more demanding.

Let us assume that an American can gain a fair working knowledge of French by studying that language for four years in high school and two additional years in college.  When Americans start the study of French, they face so many complexities, that it takes a very long time before they can hope to speak fluently without making too many mistakes.  Students have to learn the gender of each noun that they use.  They have to master three or four kinds of regular verbs and many dozens of irregular verbs.  They have to individually learn the various uses of each French preposition, because these do not have any simple one-to-one equivalents with English counterparts.  They have to memorize not only thousands of vocabulary items but also thousands of idiomatic expressions, phrases which make no sense at all when taken literally.  And these are only some of the difficulties which they face.

They not only have to master this vast body of information in order to speak French fluently and correctly;  they also have to have all of these items at their fingertips.  In speaking the language, as opposed to writing or reading it, they cannot stop at every third word to look up the correct form.

It will be a very long time (if ever) before students have the experience of being anywhere nearly as comfortable using French as they are using their native tongue.

Students encounter difficulties on this same scale when they strive to learn other foreign languages.

But if the students were to first seriously study Esperanto for a year or so, they would know first hand what it is to be fluent in another language.  Once they have the specific, concrete knowledge of what it is to effectively use this simpler, purely international tongue, they will be better prepared to undertake the study of a more complex national language.  They will know in their bones what it means to master a second language.

In learning Esperanto they will encounter language in a grammatically and idiomatically stripped-down form, so to speak.  They will encounter language without complex systems of verbal endings, without any irregular verbs, without a multitude of idiomatic expressions, without words that are spelled differently from the way they are pronounced, without genders of nouns or adjectives.  Freed from all of these things to worry about, they will learn the language in a relatively short time.  They will have in their own direct experience a clear model of what it is to know another language.

They will be able to correspond in that language, they will be able to read it, to speak it, to write it, and to understand it when they hear it.  Not bothered by a host of complexities and exceptions, they will gain confidence in the area of languages.  Then, having mastered the basic grammatical forms in a language that is not burdened with thousands of exceptions to the rules, they can go on and study languages which are more complex to learn.  In fact their very success in learning Esperanto may motivate them to work to study more challenging languages.

One of the canards or misunderstandings about Esperanto from its earliest days is that the goal of Esperantists is a monolingual world where everyone speaks Esperanto and nothing else.  In fact, examples abound of individuals who started their study of languages by mastering Esperanto and then went on to learn other languages as well.

William Harmon’s Experience with Esperanto and Modern Languages

At the age of thirteen William Harmon happened to see an Esperanto book on the desk of one of his teachers.  The language caught his interest and he studied it and soon mastered it.

This is how he answers the question, “Please compare the results and the benefits of your use of Esperanto with those of other languages”:

Esperanto has shaped my life.  I have spent almost all of my adult years among Esperantists, using the language in many parts of the world.  It has added a lot to my life;  it has given me experiences and friends beyond value.  I owe a great deal to Esperanto, certainly not as much to the other languages which I studied.  Spanish has helped me a lot and it is helping me a lot;  but speaking Spanish is not the same as being with fellow Esperantists, speaking our language.  It is not easy to define the difference, but there certainly is a difference.  When I was a sailor during World War II, my knowledge of Esperanto resulted in there being people – including charming young ladies – meeting me at the pier when my ship docked, and my shipmates envied me for that! [1] 

Three years after learning Esperanto, Harmon worked for two Alsatian Germans.  From one he picked up a lot of Yiddish and from the other a lot of German.  Although he does not now remember the Yiddish very well, he later studied German more formally and is absolutely certain that his knowledge of Esperanto facilitated his learning German.

Most Americans are profoundly monoglot;  that is, not only do they speak only a single language but they do not have a clear idea of what it is to speak more than one language.  They understand that other languages have different sounds for the ideas that English words express, but they do not know that other grammars can be radically different from – while being just as natural as – the grammar of English.  They do not realize that while other languages do not have precise equivalents for many English words, they do have many words which exactly express concepts that can only be conveyed in English by means of descriptions or explanations.

Becoming a fluent Esperantist cured Harmon, as it has cured others, of this ingrained monolingualism.

William Harmon spent his professional career in the shipping business.  In 1992 he retired as vice-president and General Manager of Pricing at Matson Navigation Company.  During his working career Harmon lived three years in Japan, where he learned how to speak the language through studying textbooks by himself and by practicing the language on the street.  He learned how to read newspapers.  To do this Harmon had to learn nearly two thousand kanji (Japanese ideographs.)  He learned six a day, and eventually reached his goal.

Harmon is convinced that the mental flexibility which mastering Esperanto gave him was instrumental to his learning Japanese.

In addition to his other languages Harmon has acquired some French and he has learned how to understand some Brazilian Portuguese and Russian.

He has spoken Esperanto in scores of countries around the world including Algeria, Australia, Argentina, Austria, the Bahamas, Belarus, Belize, Brazil, Canada, China, Columbia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Czechoslovakia (before it split up), Denmark, the Dominican Republic, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, Indonesia, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Korea, Latvia, Libya, Lithuania, Malta, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, Venezuela, and Yugoslavia (before it split up), and he is still adding to this list.

Esperanto has enriched Harmon’s life tremendously.  Through Esperanto he has made friends all over the world.  Learning Esperanto has made it easier for him to learn other languages as well.

Donald Broadribb’s Experience with Esperanto and Ancient Languages

When Donald Broadribb was a twelve-year-old high school student in Rochester, New York, he came across a 32-page booklet on Esperanto.  One day, out of boredom, he started doing the lessons.  He located a very old textbook in the public library and with these sources taught himself the language. Because Broadribb learned Esperanto by himself without the help of any teacher, he felt that the language really was his.

Esperanto opened up the world for this high school student.  After some months of study he found that he was able to read novels and other books in Esperanto.  He went on to exchange many hundreds of letters with Esperantists all over the world.  Some of the countries in which his correspondents lived were Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Mexico, The Netherlands, New Zealand, the Soviet Union (before it split up), Spain and Sweden.  Later, when he edited Esperanto publications he communicated with people in many other countries as well.

Broadribb made more progress in Esperanto after less than one year’s study by himself than he was able to make in French or Spanish in spite of taking classes in these languages for respectively four and eight years.

This is how he answers the question, “Did your learning Esperanto make it easier for you to learn other languages?”

Absolutely yes.  Because of the freedom that the grammar of Esperanto provides and the many ways of expressing yourself (an outstanding characteristic of Esperanto), I quickly got used to using different sorts of word order, and I was delighted to use grammatical structures which I had not encountered in English.  It was also a matter of the structure of words in Esperanto, not just the grammatical elements.  It is as though while having fun I learned the fundamental character of languages and at the same time acquired a useful language which was a pleasure to use. [2]

Broadribb studied German in college.  An interest in philosophy led him to study ancient Greek, and he spent a year reading through the complete works of Plato in the original Greek.  In order to deepen his understanding of Greek he translated sections of Plato into Esperanto.  Although these early translations have long since been lost, many decades later Broadribb came out with a prize-winning Esperanto translation of Plato’s Republic.  (That translation has since been made freely available on the Internet, as have Broadribb’s translations of The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland.)

When Broadribb was a student at Union Theological Seminary, he majored in Biblical Hebrew, and he studied Koine, the Greek dialect in which the New Testament was written.  He learned Aramaic, the language which Jesus spoke, and a related Semitic language, Ugaritic.  He has translated ancient Ugaritic epics into both Esperanto and English.

He acquired a doctorate at the University of Melbourne in Australia where his dissertation dealt with the linguistic nature of ancient Hebrew poetry.  He went on to teach Hebrew and Aramaic at this university.

Broadribb estimates that he has studied some thirteen or fourteen languages.  He says that he was not a “natural” when it comes to learning languages and that, other than Esperanto, he has never been able to speak another language really well.  However, his mastering Esperanto gave him the confidence to handle languages and he went on to work with a number of ancient tongues on the highest professional level.

The experiences of individuals like Harmon and Broadribb show how Esperanto can lead to an immense widening of students’ linguistic horizons.

How Esperanto Specifically Helps the Study of Certain Foreign Languages

Russian is closely related to Polish.  Both languages are Slavic languages.  If Russians want to learn Polish or Poles want to learn Russian, they are in a privileged position to do so because so many elements of the two languages are very similar or even identical.  A similar situation exists with the Romance languages, Spanish and Italian.  These languages are so close to each other that speakers of Spanish and speakers of Italian are able to communicate at a certain level when each speaks their own language.

For native speakers of English, Romance languages such as French or Spanish are not this accessible.  Before beginning a Romance language, the speaker of English would find the study of Esperanto especially helpful because three quarters of Esperanto words are derived from Latin roots.  Here are a few examples of similarity between Esperanto and French words, along with their English meanings:

Esperanto French English Meaning
ankoraŭ encore still, yet
dormi dormir to sleep
hieraŭ hier yesterday
kontroli controller to check (not “to control”)
larĝa large wide (not “large”)
parkeri par coeur to learn by heart
truo trou hole

A complete list of such words would include thousands of items.

In today’s world English is the dominant language.  It is used in international gatherings throughout the world.  English is recognized as the language of science, of business and of aviation.  Native speakers of English have an enormous advantage in international meetings because they can speak their own tongue instead of a hard-to-learn foreign language.  Many who are not native speakers of English devote many hundreds and even thousands of hours in an attempt to become fluent in this dominant language.  Mastering English would give them great advantages over their compatriots who have not attained this fluency.  However, because of the enormous numbers of irregularities in English, the vast majority of foreign students never reach the point where they are correctly fluent in the language.  A well-known quip has it that the international language of scientific conferences (and of many other kinds of conferences as well) is broken English.

If those whose native languages are not related to English were to study Esperanto first, this would help them do better with the dominant language.  Asians who first studied Esperanto would encounter grammatical elements that are also found in English but not in their own tongues.  By learning these elements in a pure form in Esperanto, without a host of bewildering exceptions, they would more easily master them.

For a speaker of Chinese, these elements include tense, case and number.  Chinese verbs do not have special forms to show that an event took place in the past or will take place in the future.  Chinese nouns do not have a plural ending.  The Chinese student of Esperanto can master these strange linguistic features relatively easily because all verbs can be put into the future by adding –os to the stem and because all nouns can be made plural by adding –j.

Later, when the Chinese student grapples with English, these basic concepts will have been fully internalized.  Only then will the student have to deal with exceptions, with verbs like “must” that cannot be put into the future and nouns like “man” that cannot be made plural in the regular way by adding the ending –s.

For a great many Asian students it will be a relatively simple matter to move from most Esperanto words to their English counterparts because of the vast number of similarities in vocabulary between the two languages.  Here are just a very few of thousands of words which are similar in both Esperanto and English:

Esperanto English Esperanto English
aŭtomobilo automobile nesto nest
birdo bird oceano ocean
blua blue planedo planet
cirklo circle purpura purple
elefanto elephant sofo sofa
ĝangalo jungle suno sun
komo comma tablo table
linio line telefono telephone
movi to move tuŝi to touch
muso mouse verbo verb

The study of Esperanto will also prove useful to native speakers of English who wish to expand their English vocabulary, because so many Esperanto words are similar to the Latin words that form the roots of complex English terms.

Here are some common Esperanto words, their meaning in English, and less common English words to which they are related.

Esperanto Word English Meaning English Cognate Meaning of the English Cognate
dormi to sleep dormancy as if asleep, in a state of suspended animation
filo son filiation relation of a child to its parent; forming a new branch of a society
folio leaf foliaceous having leaves
fulmo thunder fulminate to shout out denunciations, decrees, etc.
salti to jump saltation a sudden change, movement or development, as if by leaping; mutation
viro man virile manly, male
voki to call invocation to call on God, the muses, a saint etc. for support or a blessing or help

Learning the vocabulary of Esperanto helps enormously with learning the vocabulary of English or of a Romance language.  Similarly, already knowing English or a Romance language makes learning the vocabulary of Esperanto especially easy.

The Cost-Benefit Ratio of Studying Esperanto First

Some interesting experiments have been carried out regarding the propaedeutic value of Esperanto, that is, the value of learning Esperanto as an aid to mastering other languages.  Such experiments have involved students studying Esperanto for one year before undertaking the study of English, German, Latin or Russian.  The results of such studies show that the prior experience of these students with Esperanto enables them to reach a specified level of mastery of their new language at least one year faster than comparable students who had not studied Esperanto.  That is, given two groups of students, one of which studied Esperanto for a year and the other language for, say three years, and the second of which studied the other language for, say, four years, the students who had studied Esperanto were at least at the same level in the other language as those students who had devoted their full time to that language.  In the same amount of time one group had learned two languages, the other only one.  In this scenario learning Esperanto first involves no net loss of time, with many other benefits accruing as an added bonus.

[1] This is a translation from an interview conducted in Esperanto by electronic mail.

[2] This also is a translation from an interview conducted in Esperanto by electronic mail.

Chapter 23    The Resistance to Esperanto