Esperanto – the basic and the abstract

There are two beginning students, komencantoj, at the Stanford class on conversational Esperanto.  Since they are already polyglots, they are picking the language up quickly.  However, they still have a difficult time following advanced conversation.

Why is this? you might ask. Isn’t Esperanto supposed to be the easiest language in the world to learn?

Yes, and basic Esperanto is a breeze.  “La ĉielo estas blua.” “Mi malsatas. Ni manĝu.” “Kie estas la necesejo?”  “La plumo de mia onklino estas sur la tablo.”  “Mi donis libon al Karlo.”

Very basic.  Very concrete.  And if we were, say, a race of hounds who live only in the moment and only think about things they can see, taste and smell, that would be all that would be required of any language.  But human thought involves so much more than the current moment, concrete nouns and simple verbs.  We think abstractly, hypothetically and subjunctively.  We talk about things we can only infer without actually witnessing.  I have heard it said that without the subjunctive, one can only speak Italian with a limp.  I would say the same about any language.

Once ideas become more complex, the language must accommodate or it’s useless to humans.  With humans, conversations turn abstract with very little prompting, and the komencantoj quickly become lost.  Fortunately, the problem is solved with practice and familiarity.

An example of this is illustrated by the translation of the phrase, describing the Society for Creative Anachronism, “The Middle Ages as they should have been.”

The best I could do was, “La Mezepoko kiel ĝi devintus.”  (There is nothing illegal about the use of the word devintus though many experienced esperantists have warned me about it.  The preferred usage evidently is ” … kiel ĝi estus devinta.” though that sounds awkward to me.  And if you google the word devintus you’ll find it used other places by quite fluent esperantists.  “It’s not common usage,” some will complain.  But “… should have been” also is not a common phrase.)  We are talking about the conditional past.  How more abstract can you get?  It’s easy to talk about the conditional future, even the conditional present.  But the conditional past? As if the past were a malleable thing? Generally a topic for geeks, eh?  Only a first class language could tackle that.  Is Esperanto, by this definition, a first class language?  You tell me.  For my money, the nunaj komencantoj will be slinging the subjunctive lingo inside six months.  A year tops.



Shakespeare and Esperanto

I dreamed last night that I was teaching Shakespeare.  I should note right off the bat that I have no qualifications what so ever to teach English literature, and the person who hired me in this dream universe must have been very desperate to find somebody for this post, though I felt that trying to explain this to my students would do nothing to endear their hearts to the man’s verse.  I remember thinking that the most difficult part of the job was making the material interesting to low-end students without making it boring to high-end students.  How do I do this job without damaging The Bard’s reputation through my incompetence?  It’s probably best that I didn’t go into teaching as a career.

Okay, how does this relate to Esperanto?  A week or so ago, every American esperantist with an email address received the following email:
I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but there’s a movement of citizens inspired by the presidential campaign who are now submitting ideas for how they think the Obama Administration should change America.  It’s called “Ideas for Change in America.”
One idea is titled: Introduce Esperanto as a foreign language subject in schools. I thought you might be interested in getting involved and I recommend you check it out. 
You can read more and vote for the idea by clicking the following link: 
The top 10 ideas are going to be presented to the Obama Administration on Inauguration Day and will be supported by a national lobbying campaign run by, MySpace, and more than a dozen leading nonprofits after the Inauguration.  So each idea has a real chance at becoming policy.

The primary argument for introducing Esperanto into public schools sites several studies which demonstrated that children who were taught Esperanto first went on to learn other foreign languages much more quickly.  The structure of Esperanto obviates the structure of languages in general (at least Western ones) and students can use this as a basis for other languages.  I can personally attest that I learned much more about English from learning Esperanto by way of generalization than I ever did in high school English classes.  

I have mixed feelings about this.  First off, public school curricula is controlled at the state level, not the federal, though certainly the Feds can influence and make suggestions.  But let’s say that the idea found sympathetic ears and the decision was made to teach Esperanto to grade school children across America.

Where are they going to find the qualified teachers?  Will the teachers be learning along with the children?  Esperanto may be the easiest language in the world to learn, but it’s still a language, and is best learned by interaction with experienced speakers.  This may or may not be a big factor, as most esperantists that I know personally taught themselves the language, usually with the help of experienced speakers through snailmail, email, telephone, group meetings and such.  

The second concern I have is: What will happen to Esperanto when it’s subject to disparate school board oversight?  I shudder at this thought.  How long will it be before some well meaning but short sighted bureaucrat thinks, “Hey!  I’ll bed I can improve on this Esperanto thing.  First off, let’s get rid of this annoying accusative case …”