Most people have rather mundane goals for summer:
- Relax by the sea/river with friends/family and consume mountains of food and drink
- Relax by the sea/river avoiding everyone, but still consuming mountains of food and drink
- Develop diabetes and heart disease as a result of abovementioned
- Make New Year’s resolutions on January 1
- Break New Year’s resolutions on January 2
- Lose weight
- Read a book. Preferably with words in it, but a coffee table book with pictures of exotic foodstuffs from a celebrity chef is probably more like it. After all, we are Australians, and we must cringe at all attempts at intellectualism, i.e., books with words in them and no pictures of food or Balinese temples. Or pictures of food in Balinese temples.
I am not ‘normal’.
Instead of any of those goals, I decided to learn a new language. And not just any language.
I’m learning a language that is:
- not spoken as an official/national language anywhere
- not taught in ‘normal’ schools
- did not develop naturally (it was invented by a Russian in the 19th Century).
Yes, Esperanto is my summer project.
(Before you shriek at me for having the seasons ‘wrong’ (i.e. it’s WINTER in December), let me correct you. I live in Australia. Summer ‘officially’ runs from December to March.)
The Language of Clubbies
In the course of improving my Arrernte vocab, I voraciously consumed podcasts and blog posts written by other language learning geeks, and rediscovered Esperanto.
I say ‘rediscovered’ because I’ve been aware of Esperanto since my childhood.
Esperanto was a language I stumbled across as a child whilst browsing at our very well-stocked local library. At one stage, I was obsessed with Dutton Speedwords –a neat version of shorthand that uses the Latin alphabet rather than the squiggles that Pitman Shorthand uses. I recall learning Dutton Speedwords in 6th Grade so well, I could write stories and take extensive notes. I was also obsessed with learning PNG Pidgin English – I’m not sure why, but it appealed to me at the time.
(Another aside – sorry. Imagine my delight when I discovered an old copy of ‘Teach Yourself Dutton Speedwords’ at the local secondhand bookshop here in Alice Springs a couple of years ago. Needless to say that it’s sitting on my shelf now).
I was aware of Esperanto because of the sheer number of books in my local library on the subject. Perhaps there was a secret colony of Esperantists in the Sutherland Shire in the 1970s and 80s, trying to add cultural diversity to the largely white Anglo-Celtic population? Who knows?
Whatever the reason, thanks to Sutherland Central Library and the ratepayers of the Shire, I was aware of Esperanto as both an invented language and as an attempt at to be an international language of peace and understanding. I was also aware of it as a number of my Amateur Radio operator friends (Ham radio operators – GOD I HATE THAT TERM –“HAM RADIO”. Radio made out of smoked pig meat. Really?), were Esperantists as well.
The impression that I formed of Esperanto during the 1980s was that it attracted people who were slightly ‘off’: happy-clappy Christians drunk on Jesus-lurve, old ladies who volunteered in refugee aid organisations and ‘clubbies’. I really don’t know how to explain the word, ‘clubbies’, other than to say it’s an Australian expression for the kinds of people who hang out together in stamp collecting and pylon appreciation clubs.
(Aside#3: As I was one of those strange people who was in a DX club – a shortwave radio listeners’ club, and later, an Amateur Radio operator- it never occurred to me that I was also a ‘clubby’!).
All this knowledge I filed away in my brain in a handy neuron box called ‘Esperanto: the language of clubbies’. This neuron box is located beside the one marked ‘embarrassing ability to recall the names of capital cities’, and is situated just behind the one called ‘frequency range of the 19m shortwave band*’.
*(15000-15800khz – I knew you were wondering).
This all brings me back to the present: lots of language geeks learn Esperanto, and the logical question: why?
Arriving at Esperanto
I discovered that the contemporary gamut of A-list polyglots (Benny, Laoshu50500, Professor Arguelles, LinQ Steve, Luca etc, etc) all learn Esperanto.
They also all learn Spanish and German, and a lot of other languages, but I digress…
Apparently, Esperanto is easier to learn than just about any other language for English speakers. It takes, on average, 150 hours of study to get to a conversational level.
Many of the A-list polyglots suggest that you learn Esperanto before you learn another language, as it teaches you how to learn a language. Whilst I can’t say that this is true for me, it does seem to have merits.
Here’s a TED talk that might inspire you:
However, it wasn’t any of these A-list polyglots or even the TED talk which actually inspired me to undertake this project. In fact, I have my suspicions that many of the A-list polyglots collect languages in the same way that others collect stamps, twitchers tick of ‘lifers’ and pylon admirers salivate on pylons or whatever it is that pylon enthusiasts do.
What convinced me to learn Esperanto was a lesser-known (but very impressive) polyglot by the name of Peter Browne, and his interview with David Mansaray and Claude Cartaginese (part of the Polyglot Project Podcast). Listen to the episode here.
You see, Peter Browne writes prose and poetry in Esperanto, delights in Esperanto translations of the classics and writes for an Esperanto literary magazine.
It was this evidence of creativity, of culture in the anthropological sense that got me interested in learning the language.
Some people argue against learning Esperanto because it’s an invented language. They substitute ‘invented’ for dead or useless:
The difficulty of learning Esperanto is that you will have wasted your time. Esperanto is like Klingon. The only place you can use it is at Esperanto conventions. No country recognizes Esperanto as an official language, no town has signs written in Esperanto, no human population uses Esperanto to converse on a daily basis. Don’t waste your time with Esperanto. If you really want to learn a useless language, learn Klingon. It was invented by an American linguist, not a European one :p
This quote is taken from the Bible of teenage troll wisdom, Yahoo Answers. It’s typical of the reasons people give for not learning Esperanto.
However, it’s incorrect on two counts:
- Esperanto is alive and well, thanks to the internet and A-list polyglots
- The fact that a European rather than an American invented it ensures its superiority (IMHO).
A quick search, and the utter wealth and richness of Esperanto resources available on the internets and I was hooked.
Anthropologasms: An Esperanto Culture!
As if the wealth of free resources wasn’t enough, it becomes apparent when you explore these resources that this is no mere invented, useless language maintained by a few sad clubbies.
It’s actually alive – at least in the sense that a massive number and variety of resources are available online.
There’s music. Funky, quirky world music-type music.
There’s idioms (albeit, not many), slang and lots of colloquialisms.
And books. Lots of books written in Esperanto.
And I was in: Books. More books.
I do note, however, a large number of Esperanto websites that were clearly made using 1998’s best internet graphics – which look decidedly lame in 2013.
So now, my punning clan – eh- cunning plan to spend 3 months over summer learning Esperanto. I’d like to be able to have a basic conversation in Esperanto by March.
And maybe know about 500 words.
Wish me luck!