Ĉu vi parolas Esperanton? Esperanto speakers launch new drive to gain international recognition

Language was devised 125 years ago, but to be fair it has had an up and down history

More than 1,000 dedicated campaigners from all over the world will gather in a conference hall in Iceland tomorrow to launch their latest attempt to get international recognition for the language they can all speak.

Friday is Esperanto Day - so dedicated to promote the language which was devised 125 years ago in an attempt to bring different cultures closer together by removing language barriers.

It has, it would only be fair to point out, had an up and down history since then.  According to the Esperanto Society, there are now around two million speakers world-wide - and 2,000 fluent speakers of it residing in the UK.

Internationally, around 600 primary and secondary schools in 28 countries (including five in the UK - largely as a result of a Springboard campaign to promote it in primary schools) teach it and it is officially taught in 150 universities.  There is a lectureship in the language at the University of Liverpool.

However, it is not recognised as a modern foreign language for national curriculum purposes in England by the Department for Education - largely because there is no recognised qualification in it for which pupils can study.  A spokeswoman for the DfE said; “It would be very difficult for a school to teach Esperanto as part of the current national curriculum as there are no Esperanto literary texts and no culture to interact with.

“It is, of course, open to schools to teach Esperanto outside the national curriculum if there is a demand from pupils and parents.”

It was taught at GCSE up until 2008 when it was killed off after only 38 pupils sat the exam.  They did well with six gaining A* grades.  They also included a 13-year-old and a nine-year-old taught by their parents.

The language was created by Lazar Zamenhof in 1887 in response to ethnic divisions in his native Bialystock in Poland.  He believed that language barriers fostered conflict and therefore set about promoting it as a “neutral” second language that had no political baggage.

In the 1920s, there were attempts at the League of Nations - the fore-runner of the United Nations - to make it the language of international relations but these were resisted by, amongst others, the French.  Esperanto speakers were also persecuted in Germany where Hitler viewed the language with deep suspicion.

However the delegates at the conference on Friday, who will be greeting each other with a cheery “saluton” (hello), would like to see it play a more prominent role in the workings of institutions like the UN and the European Union.

“There are two urban myths about the international language problem,” said Brian Barker of the Esperanto Society.  “One is that everyone speaks English and the other is that no-one speaks Esperanto.  Both are untrue and both need to be challenged.”

The language has not been without heavyweight supporters - former prime minister Harold Wilson used to speak it, millionaire financier George Soros and Star Trek actor William Shatner (who even starred in a movie filmed entirely in Esperanto) have promoted it and others who have spoken the language include J.R.R.Tolkein, Leo Tolstoy, Patrick Moore, Peter Ustinov and former home secretary David Blunkett.  (In Blunkett’s case, though, he admits to having regretted learning the language after attempting to use it one evening as a 16-year-old in Paris.  He got into “certain difficulties”, he mysteriously told MPs..)

Supporters of the language argue that it is easy to learn and understand because it has a fairly simplistic grammatical structure.  They point out that in its “short history of 125 years” it has established itself in the top 100 of languages world-wide (out of a total of 6, 800), according to the CIA’s World Fact Book.  It is also the 29th most used language on Wikipedia ahead of Danish and Arabic - (which may explain the CIA’s interest in it). In addition, to counteract the Government’s point about the lack of literacy texts, they say there is a “rich body” of more than 50,000 titles which have either been translated or written in Esperanto.

There is no shortage of campaigners ready to promote the language, therefore, although whether the greeting “kiel vi fartas?" (how are you?) will become more widespread in future remains to be seen.

Esperanto phrases

Cu vi parolas Esperanton? Do you speak Esperanto?

Kiel vi fartas? How are you?

Mi amos vin I love you

Kaj nun la veter-prognozo And now the weather forecast

Unu, du, tri  One, two, three

Kvar, kvin, ses Four, five, six

Sep, ok, nau, dek seven, eight, nine, ten

Pepu nin kun viaj komentoj Tweet us with your comments                              

Famous Esperanto speakers

Prime Minister Harold Wilson learnt the language as a boy scout and became vice-president of the British Workers’ Esperanto Movement in 1980 after his retirement.

David Blunkett learnt the language while he was at school but said he regretted it later.  “My only regret is that I learnt a language called Esperanto at school,” he told MPs in a Commons debate while he was Education Secretary. “It was a very good idea at the time but got me into certain difficulties at the age of 16 when I used it in Paris.”  He did not elaborate.

William Shatner, the actor who played Captain Kirk in Star Trek, starred in the movie Incubus, in 2003. The science fiction film made entirely in Esperanto with English sub-titles was an attempt to promote the language.

George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist, was brought up in a Jewish family in the 1930s by a  father who was a keen supporter of the language.  It was seen in pre-war Germany as an attempt to promote harmony between different cultures but frowned upon by Hitler.

Peter Ustinov, the actor, spoke 16 different languages fluently - one of which was Esperanto.

Other famous Esperanto speakers include Rory Bremner, the astronomer Patrick Moore and Pope John Paul II.           

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