Why do we teach foreign languages in school? Is it because foreign languages are essential job skills students will need when they join the workforce? Is it a crucial life skill we need in society? Most of my former classmates never used the language after they graduated and soon forget most of what they learned. Few visit a country where the language is spoken and even then, they mainly use English. Students rarely read books in a foreign language or watch foreign language films without English subtitles, during or after school. Even after years of study, few can speak the language with much skill or talent.
So, is teaching foreign languages a waste of time? If most students don’t reach a comfortable level and rarely use it, what’s the point? I believe that even if students never use the language, it still is useful. Teenagers rarely know what direction their life will go, which is why it is good to offer a range of options. School is important is offering a sample of life experiences, even if the students never follow up on them. A foreign language is one option they might not have otherwise considered but could open a whole new world to them. We teach foreign languages to show students that other cultures exist, that there are other ways of thinking, speaking and behaving.
There are three main reasons we teach languages to students, which are symbolic, economic and cultural. Languages can hold great symbolic importance even if they have limited practical use. This is why Irish is mandatory even if few Irish people ever use it and why Latin used to be commonly taught. The second is economic, learning English is an important skill to have in the modern economy, especially if you intend to work abroad. Thirdly is cultural, learning a language gives people access to literature, music and media in that language as well as a chance to meet new people. There is also the opportunity to travel, which is a mixture of the last two points.
So, what has Esperanto got to do with this? At first, it might seem ridiculous to teach a small invented language to students and you might wonder when they would ever put it to use? But if most students never use the foreign language anyway and struggle to reach even conversational level, then we must reconsider why we teach languages to students. If teaching foreign languages is useful even if they are never used outside the classroom, then Esperanto’s small size is not a problem. Even though it doesn’t have an economic appeal, it does have a cultural and symbolic appeal, as a symbol of mutual understanding and unity across borders. It is still a useful tool for teaching students about diversity and respect for other cultures.
But why Esperanto? Well, most people want the result of knowing another language, but are unwilling or unable to put up with the slog through grammatical rules and vocabulary lists to get there. The biggest challenge to language learning is motivation, most people who start learning a language, no matter how good their intentions, lose motivation and stop learning. This is especially true of students who aren’t in school out of choice. However, Esperanto is an incredibly simple and easy to learn language. There are no irregular verbs, grammatical exceptions, silent letters etc. Everything is simple and straight forward with little memorisation of rules required. Most of the features in other languages that discourage and frustrate students aren’t present. The language is built in a simple and logical way that makes learning a breeze and almost enjoyable (as strange as the thought might sound). This means students spend less time on the difficult part of languages and more time on the fun part where they actually get to use it.
Let me give you some examples. In Esperanto, all nouns end in -o, all adjectives end in -a and all adverbs end in -e. Not only is this simple to remember but it also teaches students about sentence structure and shows the inner workings of languages (I’ve learned surprisingly much about how English works by comparing it to Esperanto). All past tense verbs end in -is, all present tense in -as and all future tense in -os. Words can be built like lego bricks by combining various affixes together. For example, I can take the word for pig, porko and make a dozen words like:
|Porkino||Sow (Female pig)|
|Porkido||Piglet (Baby pig)|
|Porkaro||Herd of pigs|
|Porkaĵo||Pork (Pig meat)|
If I tell you the word for sheep, ŝafo you also learned a dozen derivative words.
This can even turn language learning into a game as you try to build words out of a tower of affixes like malsanulejo, un-healthy-person-place (hospital) which can be taken to a nonsensical extreme like malsanulejestrinaĉo the terrible female director of a place for unhealthy people. Once when I didn’t know the word for umbrella, I threw together the word for rain (pluvo), a tool (ilo) and the opposite word (mal) to get malpluvilo an un-rain-tool. It’s a nonsense word but I got my point across.
Studies have found that students learn Esperanto at least ten times faster than natural languages. From my personal experience, a month of Esperanto self-study got me to the same level as four years of French study in school. By removing the difficult aspects of language learning, students can focus instead on the more enjoyable parts and make much faster progress. Fluency in a small language is more rewarding and satisfying than a few stuttering phrases in a major language.
Studies even show that learning Esperanto helps to learn other languages and a year of Esperanto and a year of French gives better results than two years of French. Although this might seem counter-intuitive, it makes sense because Esperanto is a gateway language that introduces the concepts to students in an easy way without overloading them. It shows students that learning another language is possible and can be fun. Most Esperantists I know love languages and move onto other languages afterwards, in contrast most native English speakers believe they are unable to learn foreign languages and/or the effort is pointless. One group that teaches Esperanto does so because they believe it is like teaching children the recorder, it’s not because the recorder is the greatest musical instrument and they will use it to become musicians, but because it is the best way to introduce children to musical instruments. Likewise, even if students never use Esperanto, it still introduces them to the concepts of language learning.
So, when would they learn it? Schools could experiment with different age groups. The Springboard to Languages program teaches it to young primary school children in a fun and simple way in order to give them an advantage when they move on to other languages later. The start of secondary school is another option for more mature study, but I think the last part of secondary school (for the Leaving Cert/A Levels) is probably the most suitable. Students are under a lot of pressure, so a simple and easy language would be a great relief. The subject would of course be voluntary and I think the idea of an “easy A” would be enough to entice a lot of students. It would only take a single school year for a student to learn Esperanto, after two they would be fluent. I don’t mean just the top students or those motivated would be fluent, even those who are otherwise poor students, would find it easy.
The coursework would be similar to other languages, students would practice reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. Esperanto has a large literature to choose from, the Concise Encyclopedia of Original Esperanto Literature has 750 pages, and that’s the concise book! The poet William Auld has been nominated for the Nobel Prize for his Esperanto poetry and there are vibrant literature reviews to draw from. There are also more casual sources like blogs, youtubers, music and even an institute devoted to teaching the language. Any teacher already trained to teach a Latin language will find it easy to transfer to teaching Esperanto. There are summer schools, international events where only Esperanto is spoken, where students could practice the language outside the classroom. Even if only a single school in America and a single school in Russia taught it, students would be able to use it to create links with people they would have otherwise never met.
Teaching Esperanto might seem a useless skill that they would never need, but why do we teach history or geography? Most school subjects are not taught because students need them, but instead to make them more well-rounded individuals and responsible citizens. Not only would learning Esperanto show people new cultures and people, but it would do so on an equal playing field. Esperanto is a neutral language, devoid of political baggage and colonial legacy like so many other languages. In a world of rising nationalism and barriers between people, there is value in showing students that people from around the world can meet in an equal and respectful manner.
Plus, I’m sure most students like the idea of an easy A.