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Why does anyone learn Esperanto?

WHO, WHAT, WHY?
The Magazine answers...

Tribal queen in Littlewoods Direct advert
The advert is set on a desert island where Esperanto is spoken

Littlewoods Direct says it's using a language constructed in the 19th Century, Esperanto, to launch a new clothing range. Who still learns this language, and why?

"Behold my fantastic invention to bring us more beautiful clothes."

Perhaps not a phrase language students will have much use for, but this forms the dialogue in Littlewoods Direct's latest advert featuring the queen of a desert island speaking - according to the clothing firm - Esperanto.

"We believe it is a language that not only sounds beautiful, but exists to create harmony in the world, making this the perfect choice," says a Littlewoods spokesman.

THE ANSWER
To speak to others in a "neutral" second language
To improve language skills

When it was created, Esperanto was intended to become everyone's second language, to bring equality to international communications.

There are estimated to be more than 2,000 Esperanto speakers in the UK and anything between 500,000 and two million worldwide. But why learn it?

"If you want to travel the world and speak to people on equal terms then learning Esperanto is the way to do it," says David Kelso, 63, from Lanarkshire, who has been speaking it for more than 45 years. "You'll never achieve that through English."

David Kelso
People who learn it tend to be idealistic - there's a vast number of poets in Esperanto and there's a lot of vegetarians
David Kelso

As a 14-year-old he taught himself with the help of a correspondence course and it was two years before he met another Esperanto speaker. But his linguistic skills have since earned him hundreds of friendships around the world.

He gets in touch with Esperanto speakers in any country he plans to visit, and writes daily e-mails in Esperanto to international friends.

"People who learn it tend to be idealistic. There's a vast number of poets in Esperanto and there's a lot of vegetarians, a high ratio of pacifists and Quakers." Politically, he says, they tend to be left-of-centre.

Easier than French

The language itself sounds rather like Italian or Spanish and its grammar is very simple so it's easy to learn, with no irregular verbs.

LISTEN TO ESPERANTO

Lazar Zamenhof created the language in 1887, in response to the ethnic divisions in his native Bialystok in Poland. He believed that language barriers fostered conflict and therefore set about promoting a "neutral" second language that had no political baggage.

In the 1920s there were attempts at the League of Nations to make it the language of international relations, but the French were among those to resist. And Esperanto speakers were persecuted in Nazi Germany, where Hitler viewed the language with deep suspicion.

Since then, William Shatner helped raise the language's profile by starring in an Esperanto-speaking film called Incubus. And one of the lead characters in BBC Two's Red Dwarf, Arnold Rimmer, tried to speak it - indeed, Esperanto was a recurring theme on the show.

Red Dwarf
Esperanto was the name of a spaceship in Red Dwarf

The advent of the internet has helped to harness interest and make it easier for people to teach themselves. But it has also made the community more invisible - the number of active Esperanto clubs in the UK has declined from about 80 to 10 in recent years. Next week a worldwide Esperanto congress meets in Rotterdam.

Four UK primary schools teach Esperanto, under a pilot scheme called Springboard organised by the Esperanto Association of Britain.

"It's a language awareness course that uses Esperanto as a tool to create interest in language and confidence in language learning," says teacher Stephen Thompson.

"This gives them a better start in their language learning in general. Too much French or Spanish or German or anything can provide continuity problems."

Esperanto gives children confidence and the sense "I can do this", he says.

"Most people find problems of gender and irregular verbs and strange spelling just too much when learning a foreign language."

Language and culture

But the Department for Children, Schools and Families has yet to be convinced of the merits of Esperanto and does not class it as a foreign language that meets the needs of the national curriculum.

WHO, WHAT, WHY?
QM
A regular feature in the BBC News Magazine - aiming to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

"Esperanto does not allow pupils to develop an interest in the culture of other nations or to communicate with native speakers as it does not have an associated culture or homeland," says a spokesman.

"There are no recognised qualifications in Esperanto so schools could not teach it at Key Stage 4 [age 14-16], where the requirement is to teach pupils a language leading to a recognised qualification."

Thompson believes the language has encountered two enemies, ignorance and prejudice.

And he says Esperanto - which means "one who hopes" - has its own heritage, including a long tradition of literature.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I was taught Esperanto at a comprehensive school in the 1970s. It was a total waste of valuable time in education and I would have found French or German more beneficial. It is a minority thing and should never have been allowed to be taught in schools in the first place. But then again, looking back, education then was more about trends.
Lorraine McKeown, Stockport

"If you want to travel the world and speak to people on equal terms then learning Esperanto is the way to do it," says David Kelso. Nonsense. All you are doing is using a hodgepodge of European languages rather than one of them. I struggle to see how an indigenous tribesperson would see this as any less culturally imperialist (unless, of course, the "world" only includes western Europe and the places where the local languages were replaced by European languages long ago).
Andrew, London, UK

As an international language, Esperanto's main drawback is its similarity to European languages. It's simply not true that you can speak to people "on equal terms" in a language that is so much more like yours than theirs (if they happen to speak, say, Japanese or Arabic).
Chris, Cambridge

In a world where international and cultural divisions still cause so much hardship, maybe it's actually time that we gave Esperanto a real shot. As a newcomer, I'm certainly intrigued.
Matthew, Bristol

My great uncle was a leading expert in Esperanto, and there's been some speculation in my family that this is where I get my own fascination for languages. I have a degree in Russian, speak German, studied Latin, and have now added French since marrying a Quebecker and moving from Gloucestershire to Canada. However my great uncle would have been disappointed, since I just can't see the appeal of a cultureless, simple language. The beauty of a language is its irregularities - where's the pride in mastering a regular language, the fun in making connections between the straightforward, and the discovery of a culture that nobody lives?
Rachel Perusse, Gatineau, Quebec

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