A major problem facing Europe today is the lack of co-operation and sense of common identity. We have a European Union but no union of Europeans, in fact few people identify as Europeans in any serious or meaningful way. So, let me propose an idea that would strengthen the bonds between Europeans while also making the European Union more efficient. We should make Esperanto an official EU language.
I’m sure this sounds a bit crazy and unrealistic, but it’s good to occasionally examine fresh and unusual ideas rather than solely sticking to the conventional wisdom. One wild idea every now and again won’t kill you. So, what is Esperanto and why should you learn it?
What is Esperanto?
Esperanto is a language invented by one person, a Russian Jew named L.L. Zamenhof, in 1887. That’s right, at a time when people were inventing new forms of transportation, industry and communication, he figured we should do the same with language. While some claimed this was artificial, he argued it was no more artificial than trains replacing “natural” horses for transport. In essence, he combined the main European languages into one language that everyone could easily learn. This makes it especially suitable as an EU language as it merges our different heritages to form a new unifying symbol.
130 years later the language is still alive and as strong as ever. There are thousands of books and songs in the language, several literary reviews, a scientific journal, a current affairs magazine as well as numerous bloggers and youtube channels. The annual World Congress is conducted solely in Esperanto and has between 1,000-3,000 participants from between 60-80 countries (this year it took place in South Korea). An Esperanto poet was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature and The Concise Encyclopaedia of the Original Literature of Esperanto has over 700 pages (and that’s the concise version!). While the number of speakers is relatively small, there are roughly two million speakers which makes it larger than official EU languages of Irish, Maltese, Latvian and Estonian.
There are some misconceptions and myths about the language such as that it’s “dead” or a “fake” language incapable of proper expression. The Esperanto Wikipedia (which has over 240,000 articles making it the 32nd largest overall) disproves this as it has articles on almost every conceivable topic ranging from quantum mechanics to capitalism to Napoleon to the galaxy. I’ve used the language to make friends, work a full-time job, travel, flirt, argue, write a blog, make videos, debate, play games, everything from profound discussions to mundane arguments with my housemate about taking out the bins. Contrary to the other common misconception, there are native speakers in the language and I’ve met several of them.
What’s so great about it?
So why should we adopt Esperanto? The first reason is that it’s is really easy to learn. If we are going to learn another language, we might as well make the process as easy as possible, right? Esperanto was designed to be as simple and painless as possible to learn and can be picked up after only a couple of weeks. The spelling is completely phonetic so each word sounds exactly as it is spelt. There are no gendered nouns, so a table is neither male nor female, it’s just, you know, a table. There are absolutely no irregularities or grammatical exceptions, everything is clear and logical. For example, all present tense verbs end in -as, all past tense verbs end in -is and all future tense verbs end in -os. That’s it, that’s all you need to know. No long list of verb groups or conjugations that must be learned off with a frustratingly list of exceptions.
The second reason is that Esperanto is neutral. The EU will only work if it is a voluntary union of equal members, not if one dominates the rest. It is not fair or acceptable for the language of one member state to be imposed on everyone else. This is why Brussels is the capital of the EU, instead of Paris, Berlin, London etc. Those cities are all larger and more prestigious, but as national capitals they would leave the EU open to criticism that it is dominated by that nation. Choosing a small neutral and international city like Brussels helped the EU maintain a separate identity and lessen the claim that it only serves one culture or national interest (this is also why it does a lot of work in Luxembourg). The fact that Esperanto doesn’t have a homeland or its own state actually makes it more, not less suitable for the role. Because it belongs to no one ethnic group or nation, it belongs to everyone equally.
Esperanto could even help fix the language problem the EU faces. It is difficult to run an institution with 24 official languages and this leads to large expenses and inefficiencies as everything must be translated into all the languages. It is not feasible to have 24 working languages and it is difficult to require all employees to be multilingual. Yet dismissing or discarding these national languages is not acceptable either as each nation wishes to promote its own culture and avoid being dominated by another. Esperanto could simplify and streamline this process. It is easy to learn which means suitable candidates will not be excluded due to lack of language ability and its neutrality means that everyone can speak on an even playing field. As no nation gains from the promotion of Esperanto, neither does anyone lose from its advance.
Co-existence not replacement
Let me be clear that I’m not suggesting replacing all other languages with Esperanto, merely that it be added to the list. I want it to be the 25th language, not the only one. Esperanto is not supposed to crush or replace other languages, it was designed to be a global second language. The French will still speak French, the Slovaks will speak Slovak, the Swedes Swedish, but when they meet they could speak Esperanto. It would be better in my opinion if it was one of the main working languages, but being only one of many languages would still be beneficial. People would be able to actually have discussions with each other instead of through a filter of a translator or someone else’s native language that they are afraid are making a mistake in.
The EU could also promote teaching it in the schools of member states. Most countries teach students three languages, the national language, English and a major European language (French, German etc), so it wouldn’t be a major disruption to replace one of these with Esperanto. If all member states were on board then this would be an easy and engaging way for students to get to know other Europeans. Best of all, students wouldn’t have the common fear of making mistakes and embarrassing themselves in front of native speakers because both sides would be on the same level. This would be a great opportunity to bring people together and forge a common European identity.
You might say, what’s the point, the students will never use Esperanto, but teaching languages isn’t about practical use. I’d say 95% of my fellow students have never used the languages they studied in school and certainly didn’t help them get a job, does that mean French was a useless waste of time? Students aren’t taught languages to help them get a job or because it is practical, they are taught to introduce them to other cultures in the world and to show them that people live other ways. Most students get discouraged by the grammar rules and lose interest, whereas the ease of Esperanto would hold their interest longer and if nothing else give them a sense of accomplishment and show that it is possible to learn another language. In a way Esperanto is like a recorder, it’s taught not because it is the best musical instrument but because it is an easy way to introduce students to the world of music, likewise Esperanto is an easy gateway to languages.
All of this could significantly boost the sense of European-ness and build a common identity. The simple fact is that people cannot relate or connect to each other if they don’t know each other. From personal experience, I always thought of Europe as a distant and almost exotic place, America and Australia seemed closer to Ireland. It wasn’t until I learned Esperanto and got to meet lots of other Europeans (in a non-tourist manner) that I really felt a connection and a common bond linking us. Having fun with people from every corner of Europe broke down national barriers and pre-conceived ideas I had. Stereotypes of the arrogant French or the cold-hearted Germans or the sour Poles became silly when I found how friendly they actually are.
But what about English?
But you might say “We already have English, why do we need another language?” Using this logic, we would abolish all other official languages and just speak English. Languages aren’t merely tools, they are also expressions of our identity and values. Why is Irish an official language when it has so few speakers, all of whom are fluent in English? Because speaking Irish is an expression of who we are. It’s hard to explain but there is a different feeling or atmosphere when speaking different languages. Speaking Esperanto expresses the idea that we are all European, that we are equals and are willing to cross national borders to co-operate.
There is a frustrating arrogance among native English speakers to presume that everyone in the world speaks English and it is a sign of backwardness not to. Sure, if you travel to a European capital city, waiters and hotel employees in the tourist areas can speak enough English to take your order, but this is the exception not the rule. I spent the last two years living in a French city and a Slovak town, so I know from personal experience that the level of English is actually quite low. Even in a major city it took work to find fluent speakers, to say nothing of the countryside. In Eastern Europe fluent English speakers are a rarity, so demanding that everyone speak English puts them at a significant disadvantage.
Is it fair for native English speakers to demand that everyone else learn our language while we get off free and don’t have to put any effort in? Imagine if the shoe was on the other foot, I’m sure many of the “they-can-just-learn-English” crowd would be horrified at the notion they would have to work in French or German, even if these languages will be larger than English in the EU after Brexit. Demanding everyone else must learn English is like imposing an extra tax on them that subsidises native speakers. Everyone else must spend years of extra study on top of their qualification due to no fault of their own. Is it really fair that some people have to work twice as hard for the same jobs?
Is it realistic?
But at the end of the day, is this really going to happen? Probably not, but that doesn’t really matter. Stranger things have happened (like billions for dead banks and Donald Trump becoming President). I don’t write this blog because I expect world governments to read it and implement my ideas. This is just a thought about how the world doesn’t always have to be the way it is and things we take for granted (like the role of English) are open to question and even change. After all, there’s a reason the word Esperanto in Esperanto comes from the word hope.