My Life As An Esperanto Volunteer

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 town of Partizanske

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.


My apartment

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!


The office

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 (for learning German), (for learning Slovak), (Czech) and are working on creating a new website for learning Russian. They also have several Esperanto websites, a website about languages ( and current affairs ( 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.


Filed under Esperanto

11 responses to “My Life As An Esperanto Volunteer

  1. Well thanks, I found that very interesting and although I don´t personally rate Esperanto very highly I´m pleased (envious even?) that you´ve found yourself such an interesting and fulfilling nich to fill. I do have a couple comments and questions however …
    1. Your everyday use of E. in your workplace and domestic interactions etc. would I think be very interesting as a linguistics study, in how an originally somewhat ´clunky´ auxlang inevitably develops towards being a natlang. How its character gradually changes as the rough edges get knocked off, short-cuts and irregularities arise, borrowings from your various natlangs get incorporated, etc. etc. I think we might learn a lot of useful and interesting things about language in general, language learning and naturalisation etc. from this and similar experiences. Linguists take note!
    2. I fully acknowledge that it´s pointless trying to tell anyone what they ´should´ do, everyone´s energy and interests are different and not interchangable. Nevertheless I can´t help feeling sad that folk are able to put so much energy and hard work into developing a rootless, largely cultureless, muddle-European concept, when there are literally hundreds if not thousands of minor languages with rich associated cultures going down the tubes every day of the week. Exchange is good, but pointless unless you have something unique to trade in the first place.
    3. Discuss?

    • 1 Actually we record our lunchtime conversations because someone is doing a study on how we use Esperanto. However, just because English and other languages have irregularities and words change meaning over time, are shortened etc, doesn’t mean that this is inevitable or a good thing. It hasn’t really happened to Esperanto.

      2 Well obviously I disagree. Culture (yes Esperanto does have culture) doesn’t have to be rooted in one place to have value, in fact I think this keeps it vibrant and fresh and stops it from stagnating. As for other languages, I don’t think it is an either or scenario. For example, even if I never heard of Esperanto, I would still not be inclined to promote the dying languages of the Amazon and certainly not speak one.

      • 1. Since the conditions of society and human life in general are always changing it´s only natural that languages change with them. A language which is artificially kept static would be completely unnatural and quickly obselete. For example, as long as Latin was in active use as effectively an auxlang, it continued to change and develop new idioms and usages, and as for pronunciation …
        2. You don´t need to go as far as the Amazon do you though.

        • 1 But that’s not really a natural rule. I mean we have had the word (for example) chair with us for hundreds of years and there is no reason why it must change in the future. If 500 years in the future people are still spelling chair the same way and using it in the same context, that wouldn’t mean that English was stagnating or obsolete.

          Languages have often changed in the past, but that was mainly due to a lack of standardisation. Nowadays, we all learn the same standard version of the language and increased communication between regions brings dialects closer together. Much of the pressure that pushed languages apart are no longer present.

          2 Are you referring to Irish? The thing is that I never had an interest in the language, even before I discovered Esperanto, so even if I never learned Esperanto, I probably still wouldn’t have learned Irish.

          • ——
            1 But that’s not really a natural rule. I mean we have had the word (for example) chair with us for hundreds of years and there is no reason why it must change in the future. If 500 years in the future people are still spelling chair the same way and using it in the same context, that wouldn’t mean that English was stagnating or obsolete.

            The word ´chair´ looks like it came into English from French (< Latin? < Greek?) and probably replaced ´stool´ (like German ´Stuhl´) which was relegated to more humble backless pieces of furniture. Thus English gained a finer distinction of language as furnishings became more sophisticated. More recently ´chair´ had become a substitute for ´chairman/-person´ and from there has spun off a verb, as in ¨who will chair the next meeting?¨. Not to mention usages like, ¨Prof. X is the Chair of Linguistics¨. And those are literally off the top of my head (which is an idiom not I imagine directly translatable in most other languages). Who knows what ´chair´ might mean in 500 years? It could have developed many new meanings and perhaps lost its present main sense. If for example we all began sitting on something else, or if some new fashionable term came in (just as ´chair´ once did) for a light movable seat. It could be that the word would only survive in a few frozen idioms as an archaeism, or in the sense of ´chairman´ or whatever. There is no reason why it *must* change, but as society is ever-changing and shows no sign of slowing down, then there´s every reason to expect that languages will continue to evolve in tandam — even without the inherent tendency of languages to evolve through their own internal processes.

            Languages have often changed in the past, but that was mainly due to a lack of standardisation. Nowadays, we all learn the same standard version of the language and increased communication between regions brings dialects closer together. Much of the pressure that pushed languages apart are no longer present.

            This is an empirical question to which I don´t know the answer. You could be right or it could work entirely the opposite way. If history is anything to go by, then languages seem to have evolved fastest in times and places where there was greatest interchange of cultures and most innovation, and to have remained most static in isolated conservative communities. (Although very small populations might be subject to the linguistic equivalent of ´genetic drift´ in that some information/complexity might be lost over time due to incompete transmission between generations).

            ´Official´ standardisation is probably a much weaker force than you imagine, except within very limited artificial ranges. For example legal or scientific terminology. A example not too far distant is Welsh. The Welsh spent most of the C19 arguing over the correct spelling and grammar of their language, culminating in an agreed literary standard about a century ago. However only the most formal of documents strictly follow this standard today, not even most government documents, never mind novels, blogs, even learners´ materials. Words and idioms pass from one dialect to another, but is was always the case where speakers form a more or less connected community. But the result is not eventual uniformity because new usages are forever arising. Some will die out, some spread across the whole language, most will ebb and flow and spin off new innovations in their turn.

            2 Are you referring to Irish? The thing is that I never had an interest in the language, even before I discovered Esperanto, so even if I never learned Esperanto, I probably still wouldn’t have learned Irish.

            Not specifically, but if you were educated in Ireland, at least in the public system, then you would have learned the ´First National Language´ wouldn´t you?

            No the point I think I was trying to make, perhaps not very well, is that whenever you learn a ´real´ language, unless it´s solely because you´re a language nerd interested only in the grammatical mechanics etc., then pretty soon you meet the culture of the people who use that language, at which point you either like what you find and it reinforces your interest or else it turns you off entirely. Behind any natlang are centuries of culture, myth, history, customs and so on, and all of this is reflected in the vocabulary and idioms, indeed the thought processes (weak Sapair-Whorf style) or that community. Esperanto must by comparison be a rather sterile room. Or maybe it has some middle-European elements due to its place and time of origin and subsequent growth. But honestly if that appealed to me I´d want to immerse myself in one or more of the actual languages that bear those cultures.

            • 2K

              Sorry to interject, I find these terms all over when discussing languages vs. Esperanto: “real language”, “actual language”. Usually if I argue back that it is a real language, the other person will go to great lengths to change the definition of “real” so that it excludes Esperanto🙂
              And you are right, Esperanto will not be a magical door that opens to you the sole passage to a millennium of history and culture. It could help, but if you want to really experience the Hungarian culture in its entirety, the best way is to learn Hungarian, and most Esperantists will support you with enthusiasm to do so.

    • 2K

      I am a native speaker of one of those minor languages, and speak other three minor languages, This still didn’t spare me having to invest a lot of effort to learn English (which is still OK). I don’t think that I should feel guilty for learning Esperanto in addition to that, and I did it at an age where my ability to learn has diminished. The point you are missing is that Esperanto is much easier to learn than other languages. Learning it is an attainable goal even when you would definitely fail to learn Sorbian or Slovakian. And while I must write this answer to you in English, if I would communicate with Robert he has agreed to meet me half way. I don’t need to use his native language and he doesn’t need to learn mine (though he tried🙂 ).
      Just because a language is not “owned” by a country, it doesn’t mean you can look down on it. Had it been a national language people would try to be PC and avoid derogatory remarks.
      “rootless”? What does it even mean, that it has no country? I think that’s even desired for an international language.
      “largely cultureless” – languages have no culture, culture belongs to people/populations. The Esperanto speakers do have a shared culture, you are just not aware of it. And then there is the culture of the native country of each speaker, which is what actually matters. Esperanto is an additional tool which allows me to have access to many of those rich cultures associated with minor languages that I won’t have the chance to learn.
      “muddle-European” – that’s just name calling.

      • Sorry, I wan´t trying to be deliberately rude, and maybe E. does make a lot of sense in your part of the world. However judging from the above your English (written English at least) is at native level, better than many natives in fact — lol! Given that (a) you have near-perfect English, and (b) many more people speak English than Esperanto, and (c) you say you know most of the minor languages of your region … then what use really is Esperanto to you? (Genuine question). You don´t need it to speak to Robert or myself?

        You say E. is easier to learn, but if it´s simpler than most natural languages it must also be less expressive and have less character. To make it more expressive, a better tool for communication, then you would have to make it more complex, wouldn´t you?? I can´t see any way around this. And if you must avoid complexity why not just learn the basics of English or some other well-known language?

        Just out of interest, I´m curious you see, what are the languages you speak?

        • 2K

          TBH, you were not rude for expressing your opinion, be it different from mine. I felt that you base it on some misconceptions, and I’d rather try to dispel those than battle your opinion. For instance, EO is not simpler than other languages in terms of information that it conveys – it just uses a neater grammar to achieve this. In the end what matters most in a message is the content, not the form. The metric system is “simpler” than imperial, it was planned rather than evolving during centuries. Still, a story of my hike 9000 feet up the mountain will lose nothing if I change it to be 3km with a 25kg backpack in 35 degrees Celsius. If the trip was interesting, the story will be too. I might just as well tell it in Esperanto. (for the record, there was no such hike) Metric is neater and simpler, but it can still measure anything that imperial does. Likewise, Esperanto is just as expressive as any other language. Complexity of grammar (form) adds almost nothing to the content. After all, you don’t really miss having three genders in English. Or the ergative.
          In borderline cases, I could use the intricacies of the grammar of my first language to sound smart by abusing the gender system, or by changing the declination class of a verb for comic effect. Half of the native speakers won’t get the joke, but I’ll sound smart to the other half. Things change when you speak a foreign language, there the complex grammar only hinders your effort. You have something clever to say in German, you have to spit it out quickly to hit the timing of the joke, but then you loose half a second trying to remember the correct der/die/das, then another second musing about the correct plural for birds…
          This is for me the liberating part of speaking Esperanto as an auxiliary language. I loose very little time over the form and I can concentrate on the content: which words do I use, which elements I add to the story and in which order?
          Back to your question, I didn’t learn EO because I needed to have some use for it. It also was the first language that I learned just for fun, all the others I needed in some way. The use that I get is having a pleasant hobby, meeting new people, and actually learn some Latin. I was in the botanical garden a couple a weeks ago, lots of trees labeled “Querqus blahblah”, oh wait, that’s “kverko” in Esperanto. I can’t remember the English name of the tree😦
          Also, many Esperantists feel more at ease speaking EO that English. Some don’t even speak English. But of course, to communicate with my neighbours / post man / grocers I have other tools.for communication, better suited given the circumstances.

  2. Esti

    And eloquently written, as your other posts.

    You seem like an amazing , idealistic, giving person.
    The next time you come to Israel I’d love to meet you! I’m a fifty three year old therapist, mother of seven (, and grandmother of several).

    My husband and I would be thrilled to have you for tea….

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