More Esperanto

Posted on Monday, January 12, 2009

Wow, the Esperantists found that post really quickly, and I appreciate their input and supportive comments. So, being on a roll, I think I will give another brief sermon from my Esperanto soapbox.

Let me tell you a little story. When I was in junior high school, I took a year of Spanish. Although I didn't take any foreign language courses in high school, I decided to pursue a bachelor of arts degree in college. Essentially, it was the same thing as a bachelor of science degree, only with an additional two-year foreign language requirement. Having a shallow familiarity with Spanish (based on my hazy junior high memories), I decided to take first and second year Spanish in college.

Flash forward (mumble-number-mumble) years. We now find Kristy employed by the King County Library System, one of the largest circulating libraries in the country. Many of our patrons were non-native, non-English speakers. For the first time in my life, I found those two years of college level Spanish being put to occasional good use. Even after two years of study, I hadn't learned all the verb tenses that exist in Spanish, so I wasn't entirely comfortable risking making a fool of myself in another person's native language. Nevertheless, more often than not, I took that risk and was largely able to communicate, as awkward as those conversations often were. And I felt very proud of myself for stepping out of my comfort zone and doing what I could to help those patrons use our services.

Then, a few minutes later, another recent immigrant would step up to my desk. Although I didn't speak Russian, I recognized it as the language that this person was using. And I couldn't help her. I'd have to get a translator on the phone from our central branch or resort to an online program such as Babblefish in order to attempt to communicate. This encounter didn't leave me feeling nearly as warm and fuzzy.

Then, within the hour, another patron would step up and attempt to communicate in yet another language--one that I might or might not have even been able to recognize.

The diversity of our local population was further reflected in the foreign language collections at each library branch. In mine, we had books and movies in more than a dozen languages. Spanish, yes. Russian. Hindi. Tagalog. Chinese and Vietnamese. A few French titles. Swahili and more. And people, those titles circulated. There was a far greater demand than I would have ever imagined before working in this setting.

The same year that I was working at the library, my daughter entered middle school for the first time. I was all the more committed to the idea of language study after my experiences at the library. True, there was no way that any one person could learn all the languages spoken regularly in our local community, but any small bit we could do to foster an understanding of other cultures is clearly even more essential for kids growing up today. I remembered Spanish, German, and French as being the only choices when I entered middle school. I wondered what sort of additional languages might be available to my daughter.

What I soon found out was that she had zero choices. Zip. NO foreign languages were even offered at the middle school level. In the heart of King County, alive with so many different languages, our children are losing their best opportunity of ever becoming fluent in another language by being denied the opportunity to study one when their brains are young and malleable enough to eventually achieve such a goal.

Today, my daughter is in high school. It's a bit late as far as I'm concerned, but she's finally being offered foreign language electives. Her choices? Spanish, French, German. And Japanese--the same choices I had all those years ago with the single addition of Japanese. While this is a start, thinking back to my experiences both at the library and as a sometimes-tutor of ELL students, I realize that no one ever approached me with an attempt to speak French. Or German. Or Japanese. Spanish, yes. But otherwise, people from these countries either aren't here or had access to enough English education before their arrival that communication is not an issue for them.

What I observe is that here in America (or at least in King County), there is a HUGE disconnect in languages we deem worthy of study by our children (mostly those spoken by white Europeans), and those that surround us everyday (those spoken by nearly everybody else). Is this racist? Or merely a reflection of the frustration I myself felt in never being able to learn such a stew of complicated and sometimes obscure languages? I hope that it's the latter. But then the question becomes, what can we do to address this issue of multiple languages being employed in the same setting? How will we ever learn to communicate when it is impossible for any one person to learn them all? Do we stomp our feet and stubbornly insist that "If you plan to come to America, you'd better damn well learn the English language!" (as difficult and irrational as English can be)? How's that working out so far? Consider southern California before you answer.

This is exactly the reason why an easily learned, mutual second language (such as Esperanto) is so desirable. Yet I can understand why so many people haven't thought about it in these terms. I grew up in Oregon, where the only foreign language we ever heard in the streets was Spanish. If you wanted to communicate with people of other cultures in your neighborhood, you studied Spanish; problem solved. Now, however, both here in Washington and on my visits home to Oregon, there are people among us from dozens of other countries. And if it's happening here, it's happening across the country as a whole. So, is Esperanto a quaint novelty that will never catch on? Or is it a possible solution whose time may have finally come?

4 Response to "More Esperanto"

JoJo Says:

Well, I am one of the "if you are going to live and work here, LEARN ENGLISH". My family came from Italy and learned English. I would never move to a foreign country and expect everyone to communicate w/ me in my own language. We have a Korean client who has been living in Tacoma since 1986. She cannot speak or comprehend English very well at all. She has to bring her daughter w/ her to translate. Her case has been extremely frustrating b/c she cannot understand a damn thing. She calls and I have no idea what she is saying. That is unacceptable to me, to be in the USA for 22 years and she still hasn't picked it up. You have more patience w/ immigrants than I do.

The one and only time I ever went to my polling place in San Francisco, I was stunned to see the ballot in at least 16 different languages. My neighborhood was primarily Russian & Chinese. I waited soooo long to vote b/c it was taking everyone soooo long to vote. I have voted absentee since then.

I have a Bach of Science b/c I sucked so bad at learning Spanish that I did one year of it instead of 2 and that's why my degree is "science" not "arts". Weird.

Margaret Says:

I love languages-as you know, and they come pretty easily to me. However, starting them EARLY is way easier and better. (but it just isn't a priority because it's not on the WASL) Are you grinding your teeth yet?I WROTE WASL!! I am most attracted to French because of the culture and because it's spoken in so many countries all around the world and by so many as a second language. I have spoken with Germans, Africans and Russians in French; they actually DO start learning other languages at a young age, unlike us. As you wisely note, the value of a language is also dependent on its usefulness as a second language, like Esperanto.

FirstNations Says:

I'm sorry, but your husband might be on the right track here. witness this:

Mr. Klingon is involved in translating the Bible. THE BIBLE. into KLINGON.

his site has a number of handy translation tools. if you run into a recent immigrant from Vulcan, for example, or need to order from a menu written in Huttese, you can just plug the phrase under question right into that sapsucker and voila! The pen of my aunt is on the bureau of my uncle!

makah chisae!

Miĉjo Says:

Most Esperanto speakers, myself included, would agree with both JoJo and Margaret: learn the local language of the part of the world you live in, and learn languages earlier rather than later. What may come as a surprise is that Esperanto can help in both cases.

Studies have shown that, under the right conditions, Esperanto can not only help learn other languages, but, incredibly, can save more than it costs. For instance, if you start with a year of serious study of Esperanto - long enough to really master it - followed by three years of, say, French, you come out farther ahead in French than if you had taken four years of French but no Esperanto. Plus, you've got Esperanto. Replacing Esperanto with a more "useful" language, such as Spanish, would indeed speed up learning of French, but if you learned Esperanto before Spanish, you would get the same savings effect in Spanish, plus you'd have Esperanto, making it worth learning first anyway. There are several reasons this occurs, including Esperanto's unparalleled simplicity, logic, regularity and flexibility, the confidence engendered by rapid progress, and the complete workout in language study that results from learning an entire language.

So what does that have to do with learning the local language, or learning languages in school? Furthermore, wouldn't learning a common language like Esperanto actually discourage learning other languages? As mentioned in the previous paragraph, learning Esperanto first makes other languages, whether the local language or languages proposed by the school system, that much easier to learn. It also boosts one's confidence in one's language-learning ability. Esperantists often report discovering an unsuspected liking for languages after learning Esperanto, and many go on to learn several. Finally, using Esperanto to communicate with those who speak other languages makes them and their culture come alive. Esperantists have also reported acquiring a taste for the languages spoken by those with whom they first became acquainted in Esperanto.

Apart from those considerations, although not yet spoken by everyone - the best estimate we have is around 2,000,000 - Esperanto is spoken in most countries and has been used every day for over 120 years in every imaginable circumstance. More than a novelty, it actually works, and can be used right now. I believe that when enough people become aware of that, it will really take off. The Internet has certainly been a shot in the arm to the language in recent years.

You're on the right track with Esperanto - go for it! :-)

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