On Esperanto

2006-09-03

in Daily updates, Politics, Travel

One of the world’s more interesting examples of a market failure is the general inability of Esperanto to secure its intended role as a universal second language. If a great many people spoke Esperanto, it would be reasonably worthwhile to devote one’s time to learning it. Knowing that there was even a 30% chance that a random person encountered in Estonia or Italy or Japan would speak it, the energetic traveller or businessperson would have a pretty good incentive to learn at least a bit. If few people do, conversely, it is not worth anyone’s time. This is what economists call a network effect: having a fax machine when nobody else does is not very useful. Likewise, having a telephone or internet connection. The more people subscribe to any such network, the more valuable the network becomes to everyone. Such networks tend to explode in usage once they cross a critical threshold of popularity. Since the development of a base of speakers generally depends on such individual choices, it remains perpetually stuck at a low level of usage.

The idea of an invented universal second language is appealing for many reasons. While English has certainly emerged as a world language, it is not without significant cultural baggage. The forces that spread English – from the British empire to American ascendancy and the dominance of English cultural and technological materials – are inevitably connected with structures of dominance and submission in the world. While Esperanto does borrow from other languages, it seems sensible to say that it is free of at least a good portion of this kind of baggage.

Another serious issue related to second languages is how quickly they shrivel when not used. Much as I would like to avoid forgetting French, it is very hard to maintain in the absence of a need to use it. My French has never really been good enough to read French newspapers or literature without the aid of a dictionary. Now, in an environment where I am virtually never exposed to the language, my knowledge is fading quickly indeed. If everyone spoke one common language, it is quite likely that you would be exposed to it often enough to gain and maintain facility in its use.

The message is simple, then: Rest of the world, please learn Esperanto. Once two billion or so of you have, I will set upon the task myself.

PS. I promise this will be the last post during this slightly over-active day of blogging.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous September 3, 2006 at 7:10 pm

A fact that changes the equation a little is that Esperanto is supposed to have a ‘propaedeutic effect.’ So it says in the issue of The Walrus that I think prompted this post.

They say “learning Esperanto makes the acquisition of subsequent languages easier. (English-speaking students who studied Esperanto for one year and then French for three years achieved better results than those who studied French for four years, for example.)”

Milan September 3, 2006 at 7:17 pm

Anon,

But the whole point of Esperanto is that it is meant to free you from the need to learn additional languages.

Here is that Walrus article, for anyone interested.

Jessica September 3, 2006 at 8:02 pm

Esperanto does have the baggage of being associated with William Shatner

R.K. September 4, 2006 at 12:19 am

Jessica,

That is a serious indictment, indeed.

Tristan Laing September 4, 2006 at 10:15 am

Esparanto is a waste of time. Languages, while they can be taken over by acadamies, are essentially the kinds of things that come organically out of communities of people (to say French is not like this would be to deny it’s decendence from Latin). The need to learn other languages would not be eclipsed by everyone learning esparanto anyway, because many people learn other languages not simply so they can communicate with people in such and such a place, but because they hope to come into some understanding of that place. Merely translating that place and it’s into Esparanto will never substitute for learning Italian, Russian, Spanish if one wants to come into any real relationship with the culture of places where those languages are spoken.

It is because 20th century thought has reduced language to merely a means of communication that travesties like Esperanto can be concieved and, to some extent, brought into existence. Nature revolts, however, (nature concieved in the broader sense of Physis – the self arising of existence on its own as such), and refuses to submit to such a crass paving over of difference.

Milan September 4, 2006 at 12:02 pm

Tristan,

It is absurd to expect normal people to learn Italian, Russian, Spanish, etc when they are likely to have so little use for any of them. I agree that it would be wonderful to know many languages, and thus have better access to the culture and literature of many places. That is, however, entirely beside the point of Esperanto, which I find quite laudable in and of itself.

It is no more a ‘crass paving over of difference’ than standardized road signs, and other mechanisms by which international environments are made comprehensible to those who do not speak the language of the place they happen to be in at the moment.

Milan September 4, 2006 at 1:13 pm

This entry is now an Everything2 node.

R.K. September 4, 2006 at 12:07 pm

“Esparanto [sic] is a waste of time”

Ever spent any time in a country where you don’t speak a word of the local language? Especially if it’s a place where the local language is neither Germanic nor Latinate, you will rapidly come to appreciate the value an international auxiliary language would have.

Engrish speaker September 5, 2006 at 9:09 am

Average esperantist’s point of view:
http://www.2-2.se/en/index.html

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