Why is Esperanto more popular in some countries than in others? Why is the community vibrant in some regions yet barely active in others? Why is the movement strongest in Europe and East Asia but weakest in Africa and Central Asia? Why is it far more popular in Brazil than the rest of South America?
I’m not going to try and analyse why individuals learn the language or how many Esperantists are in the world, both questions are too complicated and lacking enough data to make a judgement. Yet even if you look at a map of UEA members, we can get a rough idea of the areas of relative strength (this article will focus on relative popularity not absolute). Obviously, many Esperantists are not members of UEA, but the data is still informative. I am also going to rely on my personal experiences and observations, which may not be representative but might point in the right direction.
This is the issue that non-Esperantists believe is the main, if not the decisive factor. It is taken for granted that Esperanto is far easier to learn for native speakers of Latin languages, in fact I have seen many people claim Esperanto is only easy for Western Europeans and is just as difficult as English or another national language for Asians.
Yet there is almost no evidence to support this. The countries with the most Esperanto speakers are China, Germany, France, Japan and Brazil. In Europe, the core of the community is centred on France-Germany-Poland and the fact each have a different native language family (Latin-Germanic-Slavic) has little effect. The language is stronger in East Asia than it is South America. If you look at the World Congress of Esperanto, there is little correlation between native language and participation rates. The last three congresses were held in Portugal, South Korea and Slovakia respectively, yet the attendance at each was remarkably similar. Even at the Congresses held in Europe, some of the largest delegations were from Japan and South Korea.
Let’s look at a case study. Slovakia and Portugal are both small European countries with similar population sizes, yet the vocabulary of Esperanto is much more similar to Portuguese than Slovak, so Portugal should have a much larger Esperanto movement. Yet it is Slovakia with an active movement while Portugal doesn’t even have a national association. There were more Slovaks than Portuguese at the World Congress in Portugal last year. We could also use Romania to test the hypothesis. It is an Eastern European country with a similar level of economic development as its neighbours, but Romanian is a Latin language, which should help it edge out. But Bulgaria and Hungary both have larger movements, despite their native languages having much less in common with Latin. In fact, Hungary has arguably one of the proportionately largest Esperanto communities despite the fact Hungarian isn’t even an Indo-European language.
People who already speak multiple languages and are used to learning new languages are going to be more receptive to learning another language and familiar with issues regarding language rights. In contrast, monolinguals are resistant to learning a new language, don’t see any need to respect linguistic rights and often believe they are unable to learn another language. The polyglot nature of the Esperanto community is clear to see, and many are drawn to the language due to an interest in language issues. Regions where language is a political issue (like Belgium and Catalonia) have active movements and are resistant to the idea of one dominant language. Small countries where foreign languages are in close proximity often have disproportionately active movements.
The strength of English could be a factor in itself as English speakers are much more resistant to the idea of Esperanto than non-English speakers (they are also less likely to have heard about it). Native English speakers in particular are dubious of the need to learn other languages at all and feel English already is a global universal language (the belief “everyone speaks English” is very common). But it’s hard to isolate this factor as English speakers are largely monoglots but also geographically isolated. Out of Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA, only the USA has a land border with a country that speaks another language, all the others are islands. Even then it is hundreds of miles away for many inhabitants. Hence, it’s hard to tell whether English is a factor or just correlated with other factors.
Existing common language
The corollary to the last point is that Esperanto is far less popular in areas where there is already a common language in the continent. For example, most of South America speaks Spanish so they already have an international language for the continent. It is noticeable that the only non-Spanish speaking South American country, Brazil has the strongest movement on the continent. Likewise, Arabic already provides an international language in the Middle East, which could be a major reason why most of the Middle East doesn’t even have Esperanto associations. It is noticeable the only two countries in the Middle East with movements, Iran and Israel, aren’t Arabic speaking nations. It is possible that the fact Zamenhof was Jewish helped the popularity of Esperanto in Israel too.
While many Esperantists are idealistic, plenty of people are drawn to the language by completely ordinary reasons, such as personal contacts. I’ve met many Esperantists who got involved because they were convinced by friends or their partner, these personal contacts are essential for keeping people in the movement. It can be intimidating going to your first Esperanto meeting if you don’t know anyone, so a friendly welcome can be decisive in bringing the person back again. If someone makes a friend, that can keep them in, so when the next person comes along, they can join the group and act as a magnet for more people. Likewise, if someone has no one they can use the language with, they might lose interest and potential learners would have no one to use the language with. This means towns with an active club can attract and retain new people, while potential new learners in towns without clubs are less likely to become active.
Slovakia has an active youth movement because a group of friends learned the language, brought their friends in and became friends with other people. As a result, there is now a close-nit group driving the movement. Hungary did have active youth movement, but they seem to have gotten somewhat burnt out as new people didn’t replace the old, leading to IJS not being organised last year or this. Most events, clubs and even national associations are dependent on a small number of highly active people who have a huge impact on the wider movement.
Why is the movement weaker in Africa and the 3rd world in general? Esperanto is essentially a hobby language, people learn it for fun or because they like the idea of it. No one learns it for work or because it is necessary in school. This means it is more common among highly educated people with disposable income and less popular in poorer regions. Language learning as a hobby is far more common among highly educated people for various reasons including a greater comfort and aptitude with learning. People need time and resources to invest to learn the language, resources that are more available to well-off people.
People learn Esperanto to use it with other people, so places where international travel is easier are going to be more attractive. Germans are highly represented at international events because the central location of Germany in Europe makes it easy to travel and attending events are a great way to keep people in the movement. On the other hand, if you are far away from other countries, it is hard to find a use for Esperanto and speaking Esperanto with people who share your native language feels somewhat artificial to some. This why the movement is much stronger in the centre of Europe than on the periphery, why Slovakia is more active than Portugal, Germany and Poland more than the Balkans.
In conclusion, although the native language of a country seems to have little or no effect on the popularity of Esperanto, factors like language diversity, education, geography and personalities can boost support, while the presence of a rival international language such as English can weaken support.