An Old Language With a Growing Digital Fan Club
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Lingvo estas grava.
By Fiona Zublin
American Chuck Smith was in his last year of university, writing a paper about teaching language to artificial intelligence. A detail caught his eye, about a translation trick that used the language of Esperanto to teach machines new tongues. He Googled, on a whim, and found an email correspondence course. “I thought I’d give it a shot,” he says, and if it went nowhere, no biggie. “I’ll have wasted a half hour of my life.”
Not a waste at all. Esperanto, perhaps the most famously constructed language of them all, first broke onto the scene nearly 130 years ago and was meant to be an easy-to-learn language that would unify all of humanity. (The word itself translates to “one who hopes.”) While it hasn’t done that yet, it’s the most successful (read: widely spoken) constructed language in the world, according to Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages, with anywhere from 50,000 and 2 million speakers. And after years of relative stability, it’s seeing a surprising surge in popularity online.
Indeed, Esperanto is the first constructed language to be taught on Duolingo, the website and app that boasts 120 million users and aims to teach languages to the masses by turning a mastery of any given tongue into a free online game, with a points-based system and a cheerful owl who pops out to congratulate you when you get the answers right (or looks dejected when you screw up). About 333,000 people have signed up for the Esperanto course since it debuted last May — a small number relative to Duolingo’s users overall, though huge in terms of the Esperanto community at large. Esperanto also won a place on the site before Hindi, Hungarian or Korean, which are all still in development.
If the Internet is how Esperanto lures people in, the community is why they decide to stay.
Smith, 36 and living in Berlin, now speaks Esperanto with native fluency and spearheaded Duolingo’s Esperanto program as one of 10 volunteers who developed the course — a process born through demand. “The community of people interested in learning Esperanto was definitely very vocal,” says Gina Gotthilf, Duolingo’s VP of Growth. While Esperanto has used online courses before to expand interest, actual outreach has always been an issue. But can Duolingo be a way to change that? “Up until now, you pretty much had to know an Esperanto speaker to get involved in the community,” Smith says. But since the Duolingo course launched last year, language publishers such as Teach Yourself have noticed a surge in interest and are considering new forays into teaching Esperanto. He says he ran into a few young Duolingoers (all with a decent grasp of the language) at a recent International Youth Congress, while Esperanto-USA says it’s seen a slight uptick in membership and expect even more members if Duolingo students continue with Esperanto beyond the intro course.
If the Internet is how Esperanto lures people in, the community is why they decide to stay. While Esperanto’s considered quite easy to learn, it’s not all that useful, given the relatively small number of speakers, and there’s no country in which Esperanto is the native language to motivate potential travelers or expats to pick it up. Rather, you learn Esperanto if you really like the people you meet while learning it. Gotthilf says the community, which exists both on Duolingo and on Facebook, is vibrant. “Almost too friendly,” Smith says he’s heard it described.
The under-30s congregating on the Internet aren’t the same crowd of over-50s who have kept Esperanto alive by maintaining local clubs and subscribing to the multiple Esperanto-language magazines, but they’re a community nonetheless.
To be sure, Esperanto may be easy to learn, but some say it’s only easy to learn for those who are used to European languages. Much of the basis for the language can be found in Romance, Germanic and Slavic languages, so the claims of universality may not be as easy for native speakers of Arabic or Mandarin. Even then, the French community hasn’t seen a major uptick in interest, says Aleks Kadar, president of Espéranto-France. And Okrent describes the language as one that’s reached “a state of equilibrium.” She doesn’t think it’ll die out, but she can’t see it taking over the world one country at a time either.
Looking ahead, Kadar hopes his group will see a spike in membership once Duolingo premieres a French-to-Esperanto course. Smith’s not thinking about the world just yet — though he is helping to develop an Esperanto-for-Spanish-speakers course for Duolingo that should launch in the coming months. But 333,000 new Esperanto enthusiasts? That’ll do for now.