During Christmas, I returned home and met some friends who asked I’m up to nowadays. “Well,” I said, “I’m working in an Esperanto office.” They didn’t believe it. What is Esperanto? Why would anyone want to speak it? Is it some sort of cult? Why don’t you just speak English, the language that everyone speaks? Is Esperanto even a real language? Have I lost my mind?
If you don’t know what Esperanto is, I’ve written a separate post explaining and the Wikipedia article is very informative. Basically, the idea is that there should be one universal language that everyone speaks to promote international communication and co-operation. So it was invented by a single person who took elements from the main languages of Europe and combined them together. Unlike other languages, it doesn’t carry the historical baggage of nationalism and colonialism, instead it is a neutral language that offers a level playing field to everyone. As it was deliberately planned, it doesn’t have any of the irregularities and random rules that plague other languages and make learning them so frustrating. Instead it is designed to be as easy as possible to learn.
A year ago, I was working in an office in Dublin. The work was easy, the pay was good and with the state of the Irish economy, I was happy to even have a job. The only problem was that the work was completely boring. I sat at a computer all day long and just typed details from forms. Take another form, type and repeat. The work was completely meaningless and probably useless too. I thought to myself, I have my whole life for boring office work, now I want to travel, visit other countries and see other cultures.
So when the work finished (it’s really hard to find permanent work in Ireland, so my job was only temporary) I went to a couple Esperanto events during the summer. I had been involved with Esperanto for over a year and made a lot of friends in the community. I really liked the idea of the language and enjoyed the atmosphere of the community. During one event, I saw that E@I (Esperanto/Education@Internet), the organisation that runs the main website for learning Esperanto and also a summer course, were looking for a volunteer. The work is part of the European Volunteer Service, which means that although I don’t receive a wage, I get free accommodation and enough money for food and other essentials for one year. I like Esperanto, enjoy the events, so why not work in the Esperanto community? It would be a great way to experience another country.
So since October, I’ve been working in Partizanske, a small town in Slovakia. The town is quiet and peaceful which is both good and bad. My apartment (one major difference between Ireland and Slovakia is that Slovakia is full of apartments whereas they are incredibly rare in Ireland) is in the middle of the town which means I can easily walk to anywhere in the town (the office is on the other side of the street). There some nice parks in the town and hills surrounding it. There’s even an Irish pub (though it isn’t really that Irish). Unfortunately, there aren’t many people in the town, especially young people. There’s no college, so after secondary school, most young people move to another town. There’s only one nightclub and the cinema only shows two films a day, so there’s only a limited number of things you can do.
The workplace is very international and we don’t have two people from the same country. When I arrived, there was someone from Poland, France, Ukraine, Russia and only a single Slovak. When the Russian and Ukrainian left, two new people came from Britain and Italy. Esperanto is our common working language and if any other language is used, it’s Slovak, not English. It’s interesting how normal this is. Many people don’t believe that an artificial language can function like a natural language or that people can truly express themselves with it. But we use it and feel totally normal. In fact, I’ve been speaking Esperanto for so long that it feels just as natural to express myself in Esperanto as it does in English.
For my Irish friends, this is unthinkable. They can’t understand why anyone would want to speak any language other than English or that such a thing is even possible. Do we only say the basic phrases in Esperanto but use a real language for the important affairs? Do we only greet each other in Esperanto but use English for real work? Does Esperanto even have enough words or do we have to point and grunt when we want something? No, no, we always use Esperanto and yes there are enough words. We even use Esperanto at home because the volunteers live together. My level has certainly gotten a lot better since I arrived and I am planning to do the C1 level CER exam. Sometimes I even think in Esperanto!
What do you think in an Esperanto workplace? E@I mainly works on language learning websites and Esperanto events. So apart from Lernu, they also work on Deutsch.info (for learning German), slovake.eu (for learning Slovak), mluvtecesky.net (Czech) and are working on creating a new website for learning Russian. They also have several Esperanto websites, a website about languages (lingvo.info) and current affairs (monda.eu). As a native speaker of English, I help translate and proofread documents in English. They also organise SES, a summer course for learning Esperanto, and KAEST (Conference about the Application of Esperanto in Science and Technology), but the main event, and the main reason why I decided to work with them is the World Congress of Esperanto. The 101st Congress will take place in the Slovak town of Nitra between the 23rd and 30th of July. It is the largest annual Esperanto event and between 1,000 and 1,500 people will attend. I am really excited for such a massive event with hundreds of Esperantists from everywhere in the world.
We also organise smaller events in the town. Every month, we organise a language cafe, where people can come, drink and chat in whatever language they want. Of course I speak English, but there are other people who speak Italian, French, Russian and Slovak. As almost the only native English speaker in the town, I also help at the local school. Beforehand, I never had any kind of experience with this kind of work, but the students had almost never actually spoken with a native speaker, so even chatting would greatly help them. To my surprise, I really like the work and made friends with the students. They actually have a pretty decent level of English, their main problem is their lack of confidence. So instead of teaching grammar or the technicalities of English, I simply chat about normal stuff like what they did on the weekend. Schools in Slovakia are very different to Irish schools, for example the students don’t wear school uniforms and secondary school lasts until they are nineteen or twenty.
The biggest problem I have is that I don’t understand Slovak. I tried several times to learn the language, but I completely failed. The words are too different from English and completely unpronounceable and I haven’t even started on the grammar. I am completely unable to say words like “zrmzlina” or “srdce” (where are the vowels?). But the main reason I didn’t learn Slovak is that I don’t really use the language. In the office, I speak Esperanto and in the school I use English (the fact that I don’t understand Slovak is a good thing because then the students must use English). So the only time I use Slovak (or it is used on me) is in shops and I usually just nod my head in response to their questions. Most of the time I don’t know what I’m agreeing to, but so far nothing bad has happened.
In my work, I also advertise Esperanto on the internet. I edited videos for the E@I YouTube channel and created my own video. I saw that there weren’t many Esperanto videos and little about the community online. So I decided to create a video which showed something of what happens during an Esperanto event to remind Esperantists and encourage new people to come. But my biggest project, that I am most proud of, are interviews I conducted with my co-workers. My workplace is a very special place where people work through a language created by one person without a nation, without an army and without much money. Most people don’t believe that could happen so I wanted to show it to people. Although the video is in Esperanto, there are subtitles in English, French and Polish. It has more than 2,000 views after only 3 months.
I also work on organising the massive library of Esperanto books that E@I has accumulated and the personal library of another Esperantist. It really surprised me how many books exist in Esperanto and the wide diversity of themes and topics. There are books on almost any topic, from all over the world, giving a wide variety of views. I would like to show those shelves brimming with books to the people who doubt whether Esperanto has a culture or if people actually use it.
I also subtitle Esperanto videos. I mainly translate from Esperanto to English, but have done one or two in the other direction. I’ve subtitled a lot of Evildea’s videos who is an Australian Esperantist who has made over 500 videos in or about Esperanto. They range from discussions, to his everyday life to just him playing games. I also have a blog in Esperanto, although unfortunately I haven’t had much time for it lately. Interestingly, some posts are as popular in Esperanto as they are in English (although English posts have the potential to go viral). Had I put as much work into the Esperanto blog as I do in the English blog, it would be interesting to see how far it could go. Unfortunately it’s not easy to work, have fun, read and have two blogs in separate languages.
So all in all, I’m having a great experience. If you are interested in also becoming a volunteer, see here (the details are in Esperanto but you don’t need a high level to apply). This post was translated from Esperanto, the original is here.