Esperanto: The Universal Language?

The world is fragmented, broken down into thousands of languages making communication between me, you and Timbuktu exhausting if even possible. The inconvenience of lingual barriers has been recognized for almost as long as languages have been separating people, indeed the old testament asserts that these barriers are a divine punishment.  Today, lingual divisions continue to plague every aspect of human life, though the world is more interconnected than it has ever been and a majority of people now speak at least two languages. The obvious question for any budding linguist is, does the divided status quo have to continue, is it not possible to create a universal language? The answer is a bit complicated, although there have been several attempts to create a universal language only Esperanto has reached a modicum of success in the modern world.

Esperanto was created in the 1880s by a Polish doctor named Ludwig Zamenhof who grew up in Warsaw, a city deeply divided by linguistic differences. Zamenhof dreamed of creating a language that would enable anyone to communicate on an even playing field with anyone else. However, Zamenhof knew that convincing people to learn a language he fabricated would be no easy task. He also knew that learning another language is difficult for many people. To overcome these obstacles and make his language more enticing Zamenhof designed it with simplicity in mind. In Esperanto each letter corresponds to only one sound, forestalling the stress caused by the phonetic inconsistencies of languages like French and English. Words in Esperanto are deliberately designed to alternate vowel and consonant combinations in such a way that pronunciation is simple and the accent is almost always on the next to last syllable. There are no irregular verbs in Esperanto, so once a person learns the few standard conjugation rules there are no surprises. When it comes to vocab Esperanto includes variations on many internationally recogonized words such as mataematiko and telefono. The result of all this simplification is that, according to Esperanto USA, Esperanto can be learned in about a quarter of the time it takes to learn another language.

At this point the reader may well be wondering why Esperanto is relevant in the 21st century, isn’t English the internationally recognized language of business and travel? To a certain extent English does dominate, it has the third most native speakers in the world and another 430 million speak it as a second language making it the most popular second language in the world. However, while English may be the dominant language of the day it is far from being universal, Mandarin and Spanish each have many more native speakers than English and the popularity of English is based mostly on the economic and cultural power of the United States (which may one day lose supremacy). Furthermore English, like all other national languages, is connected to the cultures that speak it and there are many people around the world that object to the idea of having their national traditions subsumed by English speaking ones.

Esperanto on the other hand, is a neutral language designed to exist in unison with the thousands of national languages already spoken. This constructed language that was designed to connect the world has led to the creation of a community that is estimated to be up to two million strong. There are Esperanto associations all over the world, particularly in Eastern Asia and Europe and there is an Esperanto based hospitality service called Pasporta Servo that offers homes to traveling Esperanto speakers globally. Esperanto is formally taught in many school in China and Hungary but the language can be learned through a dozen online or correspondence based courses including the popular app duolingo. However, despite the growing access to the language no country officially recognizes it or mandates that students learn it so it seems that for the foreseeable future the dream of a neutral international language is still just a dream.

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