At first glance, it looks like an ordinary congress held every year to celebrate the New Year. During the day participants attend various talks and play games, and during the night they party at concerts. But there is one important difference. Everything, from the group discussions on social issues to the late night flirting over drinks, is done through the language of Esperanto. The participants are here to party, but also to promote a language few have even heard of.
What is Esperanto and why have these people decided to learn it? Unlike most languages, Esperanto was created by a single person, a Jewish eye doctor named Ludwik Zamenhof. He grew up in Bialystok (modern Poland) in the 19th century and was distraught by the ethnic tensions in the town. The level of distrust between the Poles, Russians, Jews and Germans meant they lead separate segregated lives. Zamenhof believed there needed to be a common language to help people bridge the divide, but which language to use? He realised that no community would accept their rival’s language forced on them, so there needed to be a neutral language without any political baggage. After considering Latin, he dismissed it as too difficult to learn so he instead decided to create his own language that would be as easy as possible to learn. Thus not only does Esperanto have an inventor but it also has a birthday, the 26th of July 1887.
Alex Herbert from America learned the language because “I wanted a language where I could be really part of the community. When you learn a language you’re going to be below a native speaker whereas with Esperanto, everyone is on the same playing field.” This is fairer and more equal than expecting everyone to learn English. She likes how open-minded and tolerant the Esperanto community is, there are a host of people from all different walks of life and everyone accepts each other. She explains the best thing about her Esperanto is she can use it to travel to other countries and make friends she otherwise would never have met.
Despite not having a state to promote it, Esperanto soon spread around the world and is spoken by an estimated two million people. It can be learned on Duolingo and translated by Google Translate. JES is both the name of the event, Junulara Esperato-Semajno or Esperanto Youth Week and the Esperanto word for “yes”, capturing the enthusiasm of the event. This is the 12th year of the event which was planned to be a week long event in Germany, but had to changed into a three day online event due to the coronavirus pandemic. In total, there are 186 participants from 37 countries.
The main organiser, Annika Forster from Germany, explains the online event has new challenges but also new opportunities. Now people don’t have to worry about travel costs or getting visas, anyone in the world can participate for free. The emphasis is on discussion groups and chatrooms where people can chat with each other. “My idea is that we do as many interactive activities as possible, because in my opinion when you have lectures during an online event, I like those, but it’s not really worthwhile doing them because you can just watch lectures on Youtube without going to the event.” There is even a button that if pressed connects you for a one-on-one video call with another random participant as way to meet new people.
Just reading the program for the event show the enormous diversity of backgrounds and interests among the participants – there are discussions on polyamory, environmental activism, a chess tournament, a quiz and workshops on translation, comedy and creating secret codes. Various Esperanto groups set out their stalls such as the association of Esperanto bicyclists and Verdaj Skoltoj, an international group of scouts that use Esperanto as the common language during their camps. In the evening there are concerts from Ukrainian folk musicians, a Brazilian acoustic guitarist and a German reggae singer – all performed in the one common language.
Esperanto is an important part of many people’s lives explains Charlotte Scherping Larsson, president of TEJO, the World Esperanto Youth Organisation. She uses it in her every day life and met her partner through Esperanto. Their relationship is typically international for an Esperantist, she’s Swedish, he’s Russian and they live in Germany, meaning their young daughter is exposed to four languages every day. The biggest difference learning Esperanto has made in her life is how it has challenged her prejudices and suppositions about other people. She used to believe English alone would be enough open the world to her, but she found it only opens a part of the world. Esperanto has given her a new perspective by connecting her with people who don’t speak English at all.
Esperanto is an important part of the life of Stela Besenyai-Merger from Hungary, she is one of the few people who have Esperanto as a native language. Interestingly, her parents made this decision more out of practicality than idealism, her French father and Hungarian mother met through Esperanto and used it as a common language. Yet being a native speaker doesn’t give her any special position in the community, in fact Esperanto is so simple that it’s quite easy to reach native level. For her, Esperanto isn’t a utopian dream, it’s a normal part of her life.
She spoke warmly childhood memories of international events specifically for families raising their children in Esperanto, which were the main opportunity to meet children her age who also spoke spoke the language. It gave her a greater awareness of the world from an early age. “Whenever I learned about another country, whether this was in geography or history, I would immediately think “who do I know in that country?’ because I always knew someone. If I learned something during the year, when we met during the summer I would ask “is that really true?”
She believes the main effect being a native speaker has on her is that she finds it much easier to learn languages than her monolingual friends and she has much more positive views of other countries. Often the media only reports the negatives from other countries, but she views the countries through the friends she has made from them. When the Yugoslav War broke out during her childhood, she didn’t consider the politics but instead immediately asked if her Esperanto friends in Belgrade and Zagreb were safe. For her “countries have faces”.
JES has its own host of traditions and customs. While the older events have a certain solemnity, with traditions and symbols dating back over a century, such the Esperanto flag and anthem, the youth events are much more casual with the emphasis being on having a good time. Due to the international nature of the event, the New Year gets celebrated multiple times as it passes through each time zone. There is the Internacia Vespero (International Evening), in theory a chance for participants to show the culture of their country, in practice it’s basically a talent show. If people don’t want to go drinking and dancing, they can go to the gufujo (literally owlery) where alcoholic drinks are not allowed so instead people drink tea and quietly talk.
Esperanto has opened many doors for Karina Oliveira, the first time she ever left her home country of Brazil was to attend an international Esperanto event. Since then she has dived into the movement, completing her linguistic masters on Esperanto and volunteering at Bona Espero, a charity which ran a farm in Brazil that cared for foster children and taught them Esperanto. Esperanto has given her contacts all over the world which gives her a new perspective. For example, she recently watched a program on arranged marriages in India and her first thought was to ask her Indian Esperantist friend how accurate it is. She firmly believes “If we know only one language, that greatly limits our knowledge of the world.”
So is Esperanto worth learning? Charlotte offers this advice: “Try learning it and if it ever gets boring, you can stop at any time, but before it gets boring, you’ll certainly already speak it fluently.”