Life Experiences with Esperanto
Copyight © 2002 Sylvan Zaft. Here is the nineth 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.
I would like to start by comparing my personal experiences with two languages I have learned, French and Esperanto. I studied French for four years in high school with excellent teachers. I also took a one semester university class in classical French literature in which everything — readings, lectures, discussions, tests — was in French. From my second year in high school I read French literature on my own. I read an occasional book in French while doing research in history.
For many years I subscribed to French periodicals. I have read many thousands of articles in the language as well as more than two hundred books including classical French plays by Molière and Racine, works of existentialist fiction by Camus and Sartre, detective novels by Simenon and the greater part of Proust’s masterpiece. I can read news articles in Le Monde almost as well as I can read news articles in The New York Times.
I can write in fairly correct French but to do so I need to have reference books at hand. I have to constantly consult dictionaries about genders of nouns and adjectives as well as idiomatic expressions. I also have to check the spelling of words. I need to have a book or a computer program that conjugates verbs because I have to constantly check on certain verbs to figure out if they are regular or irregular and what the appropriate form is. It takes me many times longer to write in French than in English because I have to check out so many things. Even so, no matter how much trouble I take, errors slip through. I am always afraid of making a mistake and being open, like a school child, to corrections. This is after spending seven or eight thousand hours with the language.
I started learning French in the ninth grade in 1949. I made my first visit to France, an eight-day stay in Paris in 1999. Before I went I took the advice of a friend and practised many likely conversational “routines” such as asking for directions.
My spoken French during this trip could be best described as very high level survival French. I was able to ask the clerk at the Metro for information and for directions. I was able to get some very interesting information about a very old church we came across from someone in the neighborhood. I was able to order a variety of artisan cheeses to enjoy on our flight back and explain that we wanted cheeses that were right at their peak. At the hotel the very amiable and helpful staff at the desk spoke what I would call hotel English. They could take care of the ordinary business of checking people in and out and giving directions in English (as well as several other languages). They normally insisted on speaking English and I did not fight it, although, except for one woman, my French was better than their English.
I remember asking a desk clerk about the boats such as the Bateaux-Mouches that take visitors on tours of Paris up and down the Seine. To explain to me that there were many similar companies which offered the same service and that those companies could be found all along the quays he had to switch to French.
There is no way I will ever be fully comfortable speaking the language with native speakers. This is not because I am stupid. I have plenty of fine academic credentials and I scored very well on standardized tests. The problem is not with my mind. It is just that French, like English, like Hindi, like Arabic, like Chinese is a fantastically difficult language for non-native speakers to learn.
My experience with Esperanto has been dramatically different. First of all I taught the language to myself, something that would have been impossible with French. After three months of intensive self-study I was ready to write long articles in the language for the newsletter of our state association and I was ready to correspond with people all over the world. After receiving a few letters I rarely needed a dictionary to read a letter. I used dictionaries extensively to check that I was using the right word but I never had to use dictionaries to check the spelling of words which I knew how to pronounce. I used and use Esperanto dictionaries when writing about as much as I use English dictionaries when writing in my native language. My use of English dictionaries is mainly to check spelling. (Spell-check computer programs help a lot, but they are helpless when the word you mistakenly type is a real word.) My use of Esperanto dictionaries is mainly to check that the word that comes to mind actually exists and is not one that I am making up by Esperantizing an English or French word.
From the beginning of my international correspondence, I was able to express any idea in Esperanto that I could have expressed in English. My correspondents in countries such as the Soviet Union, Brazil, China, Japan, Senegal, East Germany and the Netherlands, understood me and I understood them just as well as if we shared the same native tongue.
I carried on a debate about the purported merits of Communism with a dedicated Communist who was a professor of history in Gorky, Russia. An East German correspondent hated life under Communism. He told me about singers who were no longer permitted to sing in public because their songs were considered to be against the regime. He told me that the medicine which his wife needed desperately was completely unavailable in his country, at least to ordinary people. (She was fortunate to have an uncle in West Germany who could send her the medicine.) He told me how the Communists had imprisoned his father in a way that undermined his health and led to his premature death. His father’s crime was to participate in a strike of streetcar workers.
My correspondent in Vladivostok told me how he created a Soviet-American friendship club and how the members of the club would bake a cake in the form of an American flag. He told me about how things were in such short supply that he had to get up and stand in line at four in the morning in order to be able to buy a color television set six hours later. If he got in line later they would all be sold out before his turn came. (Many years later after the fall of Communism I got a letter from him in which he told me how he had bought a sports car and had driven through the countryside of his part of Asiatic Russia for the very first time.)
In the dying days of Communism he told how the authorities offered him membership in the Communist Party. He explained to me how he got out of it by saying that he “did not deserve such a high honor.”
My correspondent in East Germany wrote in excellent Esperanto. He had once won a prize for translating into Esperanto. His letters were publishable as they came from his typewriter and, later, from the computer which a West German relative provided him with. My Vladivostok correspondent made many errors, more errors than I did, but we had no trouble understanding each other.
In each case I was not using their language and they were not using my language. We were both using our language because Esperanto is a language that belongs equally to every individual who learns it. So we were comfortable using our language with each other. We were not afraid of provoking laughter by inadvertently saying something ridiculous due to the wrong choice of a word.
A Chinese professor visiting the United States described Esperanto as “a linguistic handshake.” When two people shake hands, each person reaches out part way. If you speak Esperanto each person has already made a reasonable effort in order to learn the language so that they can both communicate with each other. This makes for quite a different kind of experience than the Chinese professor has when he speaks in English to Americans. He has already made an enormous effort to learn English imperfectly. The people he talks to have made no special effort at all.
I have had some interesting experiences speaking the language here in the United States. About ten months after I started to study the language, I had the occasion to show a visitor, Joel Brozovsky, around the Detroit area. During the few hours we spent together we spoke almost entirely in Esperanto. I was stunned to find that I was able to make myself clearly understood in the language and that I understood it very well. It felt almost like cheating, being able to speak in a language after spending only months with it. No doubt I made errors but nowhere near the number of errors I would have made in French after studying and reading that language for thousands of hours over a period of nearly forty years. There was no comparison at all between my enormous investment in French and the effort it took me to reach the point where I could communicate effectively in Esperanto.
Joel Brozovsky, today, in 2000, the director of the Central Office of the Esperanto League for North America, was then a young American who had taken seven thousand dollars with him to visit Europe after taking an introductory course in Esperanto. He planned to stay as long as his savings lasted. The seven thousand dollars enabled Brozowsky to travel in Europe and the Far East for three years. Esperantists tend to welcome visiting Esperantists, and so many people invited him to stay with them that his money lasted that long a time. Of course, after those three years in Esperantujo (Esperantoland) he spoke the language “like a native”.
Two years later, in 1989, I drove a Chinese visitor from Chicago, where we had met in an Esperanto convention, to her relative’s house in a Detroit suburb not far from where I lived. We spent several hours in the car and we ate together in a restaurant. She spoke no English and I spoke no Chinese. We got along just fine in our common, easier-to-learn international language.
Once we arrived we chatted for a few minutes with her cousin, an engineer at an automobile company. It was a curious situation. The two Chinese could speak Chinese with each other. The Esperantist and I could speak Esperanto with each other. The engineer and I could speak English with each other. We three had no language in common.
Earlier that same year I was vacationing with a friend on Cape Cod. It was very early in the summer, before the crowds arrived. One day we went down to a beach to do some bird watching. Two very old men came up. One of them went swimming while the other waited. We chatted with the waiting man. He told us that the swimmer was his brother-in-law, an ethnic Russian from Lithuania who spoke no English. During his visit they communicated in German. My friend asked if the swimmer knew Esperanto. It turned out that he had studied the language more than sixty years earlier when he was a teen-ager.
When the old man got out of the water I started to speak to him in Esperanto. His eyes lit up and he started to talk so rapidly that I had to ask him to please slow down. He told me that he had known people who knew Zamenhof. We met once more on the beach and, after he returned to the Soviet Union, we corresponded for some time.
In 1999 when I finally made it to Europe for the first time for our eight-day stay in Paris I had the wonderful experience of visiting a foreign country and carrying on easy, fluent conversations on a wide variety of topics in a language other than my native English.
This took place in the Central Office of the French Union for Esperanto. I dropped by there a few times and talked with whoever happened to be in the office and I also attended the weekly conversational meeting. As the foreign guest I answered lots of questions. I remember one individual who was astounded that an American knew so much about France and French culture and who spoke glowingly about the long history of close relationships between the United States of America and France. We discussed history, contemporary economic affairs, American interest in France and Paris in particular, what I called “America’s love affair with Paris”, and all this was done in an Esperanto that was as fluent and clear as my English is when I carry on conversations with other Americans back home.
If I were to live in France for, say, six months, and study and speak French there and not seek out English speakers I am certain that my spoken French would get much closer to my spoken Esperanto. However, I attained this comfortable, effective level in Esperanto without any need to spend months or years in a foreign country.
One of the reasons for this easier move from reading to speaking Esperanto is that the language is phonetic. French is famous for its plethora of silent letters. You hear the sound “oh” as part of a French word and it could stand for “eau” or “eaux” or “au” or “aux”. When the sound is spelled like “eau” it means “water” and when it is spelled “au” it means “to” or “per” or “in”. The –ent verbal ending is silent. Final consonants are mostly silent. The plural ending –s is normally silent. The letters ues in lingues (languages) are silent. Words can be spelled in a radically different way and still have the same pronunciation. For instance, sans which means “without” and cent which means “hundred” or “a hundred” are pronounced the same way. There is, of course, a huge difference between sans dollars and cent dollars.
Listening to French you get a lot less information about words than you do speaking it. There is a big gap between having a fine reading knowledge of French and being able to understand spoken French.
(Even with a language like Spanish that is much more phonetic than French, there is the problem of several letters standing for the same sound. The sound of s can be indicated by c, s or z.)
In Esperanto there is no such gap. Every letter has one sound. If you know how to read a word you know how to hear it. It takes a much, much smaller adjustment to move from reading Esperanto well to listening to it.
Esperanto has made all kinds of contacts possible between people. Those who learn it tend to be friendly and idealistic. It happens that people from two different language groups meet through Esperanto and marry. Their children grow up in a home in which Esperanto is the home language. In this way there are at least several hundreds of native speakers of Esperanto, all of whom, of course, are at least bilingual. There is an international organization of Esperanto-speaking families where the children speak Esperanto as one of their native languages. They communicate by means of e-mail and have their own internet site.
Further possibilities of Esperanto for use between people who speak different native languages are indicated by the experiences of the Swiss psychotherapist Claude Piron. In a talk given in September 1994 at an Esperanto conference in Cully, Piron wrote about his work with refugees:
How much torment and suffering and how many complications are brought about because there is no effective means of communicating! When you stand (as happened to me) in front of a woman who is going through a quasi-hysterical crisis and who speaks only Albanian, and your ability to help is practically nullified because of a lack of a means of communication, you can no longer regard your involvement in Esperanto as simply being a pleasurable way of communicating with like-minded people. This individual clearly needed psychological help, and she clearly would have been able to get it if there would have only been a common language that she could have used with the psychotherapist. But no common language was available.
In the same center a little later a refugee arrived from Kosovo who had studied Esperanto. Besides Esperanto he knew only Albanian. Well, even though he had not dedicated a lot of time to the study of Esperanto, the situation regarding him was altogether different. I could listen to this man and I could help him.
Among the other refugees in the center, many had a little knowledge of English, German, Russian which they had studied for years and years. But although I also had dedicated a lot of time to those tongues, communicating with them was extremely slow, lacking in nuances, lifeless, wearying, in a word, frustrating. Those languages were not of enough use to do the work that ought to have been done.
Similar experiences are proof for that the problem of communicating is a grave human problem, that Esperanto is a solution many times more efficacious than the other solutions, and therefore not to do everything possible to make society aware of the problem and its solution is like refusing to help a person in danger.
As we will see later, Piron’s knowledge of the foreign languages he tried to use was anything but trivial. Piron had worked for years as a professional translator from English and from Russian into his native French at the United Nations and at the World Health Organization. His knowledge of English and Russian made him one of the top translators from these languages, someone whom the most important international organizations were happy to hire. And yet he was unable to do really effective psychotherapy with refugees who had studied those languages for years. And yet he was able to do effective psychotherapy with a refugee who had spent a modest amount of time studying Esperanto.
The language that Piron spoke with the Kosovo refugee is a highly expressive one, and one which a student can become highly expressive in after a relatively modest amount of study. This is because of the tremendous freedom which speakers of Esperanto enjoy when it comes to word formation. In languages like English, French, German and so on, great expressiveness is achieved by means of idioms. Idioms are colorful expressions which mean something other than they appear to mean. Idioms make a language very rich, but they present an enormous obstacle to non-native speakers. Esperanto achieves its great expressiveness in an entirely different way, one that not only does not add to a student’s learning burden, but actually reduces it.