Herzberg am Harz, the Esperanto City (Source: Der Spiegel)

The rural Bavarian high school I attended in the late 70s and early 80s had two international exchanges going, one with a school in Britain and another one with a school in France. The two exchanges differed in many ways. To begin with, the British exchange was much more popular than the French one. Almost everyone wanted to go on the exchange program with the British school because English was compulsory for everyone from the first year of high school and everyone thought, then as now, that English was useful, cool, etc. By contrast, French started only two years later and there was a choice between French and Latin. So, fewer students were eligible to go on the French exchange and those who went were much more committed to French.

I went on the exchange with the British school when I was 11 years old. Together with a friend, I stayed with a local family for a few weeks, went to the school but into a separate language program, along with everyone else from my school, and had an afternoon and weekend program with activities and sightseeing. My home-stay family was nice but I found the food so horrible that I felt hungry for most of the time I spent in Britain. Having kids on language exchange provided a supplementary income to my host family and so having kids from continental Europe was quite normal to them and they actually put me in touch with a student from Spain, who had stayed with them a few weeks before me, and with whom I established a pen-pal relationship for a couple years. Back home, I wrote a few letters to my British host family and sent them Christmas cards for a few years but they never responded and we soon lost contact.

We didn’t really establish much contact with any of the British kids and they never reciprocated the annual visits that our school paid them.

My friends’ experiences on the British exchange were similar to mine. However, the French exchange (on which I never went because I chose Latin as 2nd foreign language and started French only quite late as 3rd foreign language) was different. Students also stayed with host families but attended real classes in addition to dedicated French lessons. Furthermore, it was not only the German kids who went visiting but students from the French partner school regularly came to visit our school as well.

My sister’s French ‘exchange sister’, for instance, came to spend time with our family a few times as a teenager, too, and they are in contact to this very day, having established a lasting relationship that started with a school exchange.

The general point of all this is that different languages enable quantitatively and qualitatively different relationships. English in this case resulted in many but relatively weak relationships while French resulted in fewer but more reciprocal, multi-faceted and stronger relationships.

Indeed, looking at it from the perspective of the English speakers it would seem that they are just so swamped with everyone wanting to learn their language that it’s hard to develop any real interest in English language learners. My daughter’s elementary school here in Sydney has an exchange relationship with a school in South Korea similar to the one my German school had with Britain. Each year, 3-5 Korean students show up for a term and everyone is really nice and welcoming and inclusive, as far as I can see, but no one would even dream of reciprocating their language learning, their culture learning, their visits, or simply show any interest in anything Korean.

So what does all that have to do with Esperanto?

Today 125 years ago, on July 26, 1887, Dr L.L. Zamenhof published the first textbook, Unua Libro, for the international auxiliary language he had invented. While Esperanto is no doubt the most successful international language ever constructed, most people look at it as a slightly crazy idea and if asked to assess its usefulness as an international language few people would consider it very useful. Indeed, in the 2012 Eurobarometer Report ‘Europeans and their Languages’ (about which I wrote last week) 67% of Europeans considered English the most useful language and no one even asked them about Esperanto.

However, the idea that English is highly useful as an international language and Esperanto is for the lunatic fringe only holds if you look at it in the abstract. It’s obvious that theoretically English will enable a learner to speak too many more people and do more things and establish more relationships. However, locally it may be a different story, as it is in the central German town Herzberg am Harz. Herzberg is officially bilingual in German and Esperanto and calls itself la Esperanto-urbo (the Esperanto city).

All schools in Herzberg am Harz teach Esperanto, public signage and much service is bilingual, and the town specializes in Esperanto-related tourism ranging from language classes, holiday camps to hosting Esperanto-related conferences. And many tourists simply enjoy visiting Herzberg to practice their Esperanto. The town is partnered with Góra in Poland and the two places have established a strong partnership which they conduct in Esperanto.

In sum, tiny provincial Herzberg has established a national and international profile for itself through its commitment to Esperanto (read an interesting article about Esperanto in Herzberg in the magazine Der Spiegel; in German).

The power of smaller languages

Esperanto works well for the people of Herzberg and Góra because of the high level of commitment to the language exhibited by its speakers. It may be the language of a very small group of people but these people are highly committed not only to their language but also to internationalism. And that’s exactly what makes Esperanto more powerful for its speakers than English: where English speakers are indifferent, Esperanto speakers want to establish strong, multi-faceted and reciprocal international relationships.

My introductory example proves the same point: despite the fact that 56% of Germans speak English but only 14% speak French (and 39% of French speak English but only 6% speak German), the French-German relationship is usually seen as at the heart of the European Union and the European idea and it is certainly as strong as the quantitatively much more impressive relationships of France and Germany with Britain and the USA.

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Very interesting. I use Esperanto a lot and many people think that Esperanto is useless as not that many people speak it, but communicating with my Esperanto friends keeps me very busy. I just read a letter from someone complaining that she doesn’t want to use Facebook any more as there are too many Esperanto speakers there and it takes her too long to read all the posts!
    At university while I was still living in France I studied Hungarian and Dutch. It was a totally different experience from studying English. The English teachers taught to get money, the teachers who taught Hungarian and Dutch were extremely flattered that we were interested in their language and the “etoso” to take an Esperanto word of the class was so nice. The teachers were really enjoying teaching their language, their attitude was so different from the English teachers who take it for granted that we are interested in English. One of my friends just said that she uses English to buy her flight ticket and she uses Esperanto to find new friends.

  • My experience of Esperanto are thoroughly positive ones. Indeed, this language has some remarkable practical benefits. Personally, I’ve made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise. And then there’s the Pasporta Servo, which provides free lodging and local information to Esperanto-speaking travellers in over 90 countries. Over recent years I have had guided tours of Berlin, Douala and Milan in this planned language. I have discussed philosophy with a Slovene poet, humour on television with a Bulgarian TV producer. I’ve discussed what life was like in East Berlin before the wall came down, how to cook perfect spaghetti, the advantages and disadvantages of monarchy, and so on. I recommend it, not just as an ideal but as a very practical way to overcome language barriers and get to know people from a very different cultural background.

  • I had just such an experience in Germany. I was going to a conference in Alsace and had some days to spend between Frankfurt and there. I used Pasporta Servo to find an Esperanto speaker welcoming guests (there were several to choose from). He already had a Russian girl staying with him but I happily accepted the second couch and we had a wonderful time together. I don’t speak German and, although more Germans speak English than Esperanto, they would not necessarily have wanted to know me. Even if they did think I’d be good for their English practice, it would not have been as balanced an experience as it was for us, both pleased to be using our shared language.

  • Victoria

    I’m fascinated by constructed languages and their power. I think a great example is also Klingon, a constructed language from Star Trek, which was, according to wikipedia and the Guinness World Records, “the most spoken fictional language by number of speakers” and along with Esperanto and the Lord of the Rings’ Elvish the most popular artificial laguage. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Klingon_language. Klingon speakers are surely a powerful group. They even established a language institute, you can set up your google interface in Klingon http://www.google.com/webhp?hl=xx-klingon, etc. Not to mention all the money involved…
    I would be interested in attitudes towards constructed languages. I’d suspect that Esperanto speakers may be judged positively as being “exotic” (although Esperanto is considered being “value-free”…). Surely people’s attitudes towards Klingon speakers are not that positive. I’d suspect they circle around “nerdy”, “geeky” or “bizarre”.

  • Often Esperanto and Klingon are mentioned together, but the aims are totally different. Very few people can speak Klingon fluently, According to the Wikipedia article about Klingon: “mastery of the language is extremely uncommon; there are only around a dozen fluent speakers of the language”. It is hard to say how many fluent Esperanto speakers there are, but obviously many, many more than for Klingon.

  • Henriette Vanechop

    An Aŭstralian friend came to visit me in company of a visitor from Mongolia. This gentleman did not speak English, and i do not understand Mongolian .After about 5 minutes getting acclimatised to each other’s slightly different accent, we happily talked together in .. ESPERANTO. Although here in Aŭstralia i fairly often speak Esperanto with friends, because, to me, Mongolia is “exotic” i treasure the memory …
    Ĉion bonan, all the best, Henriette.

  • KaGu:-}

    In the suburb LERUM, in Göteborg, there is a local paper who did have the courage to publish a translation of a Swedish article on the prohibition of studies in Esperanto in the upper secondary school.

    A person, probably a politician, who is hiding himself behind the signature “Svensktalande fd elev”, is complaining that the newspaper have put a translation in Esperanto of an article in Swedish in the same issue.

    The person, who is complaining, seems to be a totally vision less person, who just think to the corner of the local block.

    Pay a visit to http://www.lerumstidning.com/nyhet_visa.asp?id=16747&sidnamn=NYHETER#

    and make a comment, if possible, in both English and Esperanto. It would be nice to make the people in Lerum, Göteborg aware of the existence of an international public that are in need of the translation.

  • Esperanto is more widespread than people imagine. It is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide. It is the 29th most used language in Wikipedia, ahead of Danish and Arabic. It is a language choice of, Skype, Firefox, Ubuntu and Facebook and Google translate recently added this international language to its prestigious list of 64 languages.

    Native Esperanto speakers, (people who have used the language from birth), include World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet. Financier George Soros learnt Esperanto as a child.

    Esperanto is a living language – see http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670

    Their online course http://www.lernu.net has 125 000 hits per day and Esperanto Wikipedia enjoys 400 000 hits per day. That can’t be bad 🙂

  • Sabine Fiedler

    Thanks for this interesting post. As Arika Okrent writes in her book „In the Land of Invented Languages“ (2009: 110), “Esperantists today have it rough outside of Esperantolland (…) they are inevitably met with one of two responses: dismissive humour or sneering disgust.” The article on Esperanto in Herzberg in the German magazine “Der Spiegel” as well as your post inspired by it are different, they are a well-deserved reward for the Herzberg people’s year-long commitment to Esperanto. Even more interesting are the comments to your article. They show that – despite common belief – Esperanto is alive and kicking, and not only in Herzberg!
    What has not yet been mentioned in the posts is that the linguistic features of Esperanto (above all its regular and productive grammar and the international character of its vocabulary) do not only make the language easy to learn, but they also raise pupils’ language awareness and highlight the links between languages. Studies have consistently confirmed that learning Esperanto facilitates subsequent learning of other languages. In this way Esperanto can even be a means to promote multilingualism and language learning.
    Further information on this so-called propaedeutic effect of Esperanto and on other facets of planned languages and international communication can be found on the homepage of the Society for Interlinguistics:
    http://www.interlinguistik-gil.de.

  • Good write up and Esperanto has more to offer now, especially for the children.

    http://www.mondeto.com/1/post/2011/09/immediate-and-lasting-advantages-of-early-esperanto-1-brain-building.html

  • José Antonio Vergara

    It is nice to see an objective, positive mention of Esperanto coming from a professor of Applied Linguistics.
    More commonly, such professors are prone to pass an easy judgement telling that something as “artificial” as Esperanto can’t exist and, therefore, they decide that it doesn’t exist. Facts are irrelevant, of course.

  • José Antonio Vergara

    Actually, our Esperanto phenomenon is deeply engaged with language awareness, the celebration of linguistic diversity and an active move towards reciprocal understanding on equal footing for ordinary people.

    We Esperanto users do love languages, even to commit ourselves to this joyful collective initiative of language planning. The idea is so amazing, that it survived persecutions (under Hitler and Stalin, among others) and the current, money-led hegemony of English which makes us to look like naive loonies.

    Well, it doesn’t matter. Esperanto provides us a completely different taste of freedom and dignity: it is not compulsory to learn it (unlike English for all of us, the 94% of the world population), but a conscious choice for an alternative, fairer communication with people all over the world.

    • Jose Antonio, I agree completely with what you wrote.

  • Even if everyone in the world spoke English, and spoke it fluently, there would still be a need for another language. Every language is like a blanket with holes in it. The holes, however, are in different places for different languages. Therefore, the solution is simple: have an extra language on hand to fill the holes of the primary language when needed. Traditionally, French has served this role for English (to say nothing of the many expression from Latin used in English). For example, the plural of “Mr.” does not exist in English. When we need the plural, we simple use the French word for it: Messieurs. Thus, any “English only” policy would be self-defeating. One of the uses of Esperanto could be that of plugging the holes in whatever ethnic language is the primary one of a given milieu.

  • Hej, I appreciate the link to the web article but sadly it doesn’t work! So I found it and here is a link that works (for now, anyway). The article is from 2012:

    Swedish version:
    http://www.lerumstidning.se/2012/07/ingen-esperanto-pa-gymnasiet/

    La antaŭnomita ligilo nefunkcias, do trovis mi funkciantan:
    http://www.lerumstidning.se/2012/07/neniuj-esperanto-kursoj-en-la-gimnazio/