Simon proudly tells how his six-year-old daughter Sarah recently read her favourite story by herself for the first time. This in itself is an important milestone, but it’s even more special because Sarah didn’t read it in English – she did it in Esperanto. She is one of the few people in the world who speak an invented language as a native language.
Today is International Mother Language Day, created by UNESCO to promote linguistic diversity and encourage multilingualism in native languages. As native languages go, Esperanto is one of the most unusual. Unlike most languages, it was invented by a single person, Ludwik Zamenhof in 1887 and doesn’t have its own country or ethnic group. Zamenhof took elements of the languages of Europe and merged them into one language, hoping it could be a universal language to unite people around the world. He made it as easy as possible to learn by making each word pronounced exactly as it is spelt and removing all irregular verbs. Roughly two million people speak Esperanto, but there are only 2,000 native speakers.
Ironically the idea came from Simon’s wife, even though she doesn’t speak Esperanto (although her knowledge of French and German means she can mostly understand it), as they wanted to give their daughter the “great gift” of a second language. “I’ve always loved the idea of bilingualism because languages are a portal into another world, another culture” Simon explains. Esperanto was simply the only other language either of them spoke fluently and felt comfortable to teach.
He was attracted to Esperanto by how easy it is, “you would learn a rule and that was it” there were no exceptions. He laughs when he compares this to his wife’s German studies, recounting how she once asked for her verb book and “I practically needed a forklift to truck this massive tome” but the same grammar in Esperanto could fit on a stamp.
He doesn’t have any teaching method or routine, his motto is “you don’t teach your children Esperanto, you just speak Esperanto to them”. They read books, listen to music and he explains unfamiliar words to her, but otherwise she learns by experience. There is far less material for children available in Esperanto than English, but there are more resources than you would expect for a language of its size. Sarah is a big fan of the Esperanto translation of “The Gruffalo” and the song “Dek Bovinoj” (Ten Cows), and Simon has even made some bedtime songs for her.
The family takes a one-parent-one-language approach, and most of what Simon says to Sarah is in Esperanto, but he admits “I’m probably not as disciplined as I could be.” He slips into English if he’s too tired or can’t think fast enough. He can relate to a story he heard about another parent raising native Esperanto speakers who would use English when he was annoyed, so the children made a saying about “Daddy going English” on them.
Sarah doesn’t often respond in Esperanto, but she understands everything said to her and is slowly gaining confidence. She is becoming aware of wordplay in the language and particularly enjoyed this joke: What is the loudest room in the house? The BANG-ĉambro (banĉambro is the Esperanto for bathroom). It’s helping her to read as the phonetical nature of Esperanto means she can sound out each word. Esperanto is helping her with other languages too, while watching an interview of an Italian chef on TV, Sarah was able to pick out words unprompted based on their similarity with Esperanto.
Simon considers it an investment in her future that won’t pay off for many years. “It links her with this global network of people, so she has friends she hasn’t met yet in pretty much every country in the world.”
It’s not possible for Sarah to speak Esperanto with other children her age, as the only other family also raising a native speaker in Scotland live 160 miles away. She’s been to a handful of Esperanto meetings and congresses, but the atmosphere among adults is different from children her own age. They considered travelling to an annual summer camp for native Esperanto children and their families in Hungary, but the pandemic forced them to cancel their plans.
Simon explains that paradoxically, the small number of Esperanto speakers can be an advantage, because it’s a novelty to meet another speaker. As there are Esperantists all over the world, you can go to a foreign city and contact local speakers who would be happy to meet you and show you around. The rarity is actually a strength that bonds the community
The reactions of friends and neighbours are a mixture of curiosity, interest and cynicism. Some feel it would be better to teach her a major language like French or support a heritage language like Scottish Gaelic. Simon isn’t opposed to her teaching her these languages later and highlights that learning Esperanto doesn’t stop her learning other languages, in fact it will probably help. There is a culture among English speakers that English is everything and you don’t need any other language. But overall, most reactions are positive because bilingualism isn’t unusual in the town, Sarah’s school website boasts that over 50 languages are spoken by its students.
Klara too was raised as a native Esperanto speaker and continued using the language even after leaving home (she even met her boyfriend at an Esperanto congress). Interestingly, her parents didn’t intend on teaching it to her, she just heard them using it every day and grew curious of this “secret language.” Her father Istvan explains he was working for the World Esperanto Association and was using Esperanto all day at work, so it felt natural to keep using it when he came home.
He met his wife through Esperanto, so it was always the language they used to speak together. They liked the idea of using a neutral language at home instead of one partner’s language dominating the other. They intentionally didn’t teach any language to their children because they felt that was the role of the schools. They just spoke and the children listened.
The family embraced multilingualism so much Klara has four native languages – apart from Esperanto she learned French from her mother, Hungarian from her father and Dutch from being raised in the Netherlands. She laughs when I ask if so many languages ever confused her or held back her development. “This is a completely out-dated idea – if you look at the most recent research in psychology about child development, we know generally it’s better to speak several languages rather than one.” In fact, native multilingualism is the norm in most of the world, so in her view, monolingual English speakers are the unusual exceptions.
She grew up in the multi-cultural city of Rotterdam where the diversity of languages was such that speaking Esperanto wasn’t seen as strange and today, she speaks 7-8 languages by her count. She finds most native speakers see the language as an ordinary part of their life rather than an idealistic dream. Interestingly, she doesn’t plan to teach Esperanto to her children, instead she believes they’ll learn from hearing the language, just as she did.
Meanwhile Sarah is steadily progressing in her Esperanto knowledge and yesterday she even corrected her father when he confused sonĝo (dream) and sango (blood). This delighted Simon because “she’s starting to master the language and make it her own.”