My friends on Twitter @keikomushi and @IronMan1176 were having a conversation and languages came up. IronMan said he was studying a bit of Spanish before bed. Keiko said: “I tried to learn Esperanto a few times, but I have always had trouble with languages.”

I opened my virtual mouth and caused a bit of upset. (Yeah, it happens quite often.)

You see, I’ve always been mildly amused by Esperanto. Essentially it’s a language invented as an attempt at a global standard. Here’s some of the Wikipedia entry:

Its name derives from Doktoro Esperanto, the pseudonym under which L. L. Zamenhof published the first book detailing Esperanto, the Unua Libro, in 1887. The word esperanto means “one who hopes” in the language itself. Zamenhof’s goal was to create an easy and flexible language that would serve as a universal second language to foster peace and international understanding.

Now that’s a fairly noble ideal. But it never took off. Why would it? There are already enough languages around. The idea that everyone would learn their own language and Esperanto and then communicate across borders in Esperanto and use their own language at home is a very romantic notion, but completely untenable. Communications develop organically, following the growth of empires and global politics. The language spoken by your neighbours is learned so that you can understand each other. People travel and take their languages with them. There’s cross-pollination and the most widely used (or most strictly enforced) languages rise to the top. That’s why the real international language, whether people like it or not, is English.

English speakers are notoriously lazy at learning other languages because of this. A lot of people for whom English is not their first language are understandably pissed about it. Why should they have to learn a second language (English) while native English speakers just talk loudly and slowly everywhere they go until someone understands them? It’s a reasonable position to be hold, but it’s just the way it is.

I think everyone should learn other languages, to help them better empathise with people that have to learn English as a second language. It also helps to understand other cultures and it can be a lot of fun. Personally, I speak a little French, Polish and Cantonese. French because it was compulsory in my early school years in the UK, Polish because my wife is Polish and Cantonese because I study and teach a martial art that came from the Guangzhou (Canton) region of China. I speak all of them very poorly, but I enjoy languages and always have a stab when the opportunity arises to use them.

And they’re useful because other people already speak them. This is where the Esperanto concept falls down. It would be great if everyone learned it, but they won’t because no one uses it. Meanwhile, the unofficial global language is English. Everybody that needs to (world leaders, business leaders, religious leaders and so on) learn English if possible to help them communicate globally. Why would they also learn Esperanto in the hope that it some day becomes useful? It’s had more than 120 years and hasn’t caught on yet. And they can’t afford to learn Esperanto instead, in some ideological push to get Esperanto global, because everyone else is learning English.

So, as you can imagine, I got myself in trouble on Twitter. When Keiko said:

I tried to learn Esperanto a few times, but I have always had trouble with languages.

I said: Esperanto turned out to be a real misfire though, eh!

I was referring to the fact that it was designed to be the new global language but never took off. Of course, the Esperanto lovers, with an almost religious fervour for their chosen hobby language, got straight onto me. The first was a Twitter user actually called @esperanto

So… if someone can not learn X after several attempts, then X is a “misfire”? Your logic is very poor. 😛

meNo, that’s not what I said. Whether you can learn it or not, who speaks Esperanto anywhere? A hobby language at best. = Misfire.

esperantoLet’s see what my followers say about it.

I thought, Oh dear, here we go. Turns out he doesn’t have many followers. (I know, I know, but let’s not be mean!)

Subsequently he reposts my words: Whether you can learn it or not, who speaks Esperanto anywhere? A hobby language at best. = Misfire.

In an attempt to clarify my position I said:

It was supposed to be the new int’l language. A tiny % of people know it. Misfire. I’m not having a go, just an observation. 🙂

esperantoInnovations like Esperanto take time, especially if people and media keeps misinforming and spreading prejudices about them.

meIt’s had 120 years! How much time does it need?

Then a new Esperanto fan stepped in. His name is @omgitsbrandonn – his Twitter bio describes him as: 15-years old, musician, gay, Esperantist, artist, and so much more. So, he’s only 15 and we should forgive him his naiveté. He said (over several Tweets):

I speak Esperanto, and I know many others who do too. It might not have caused perfect global harmony but it’s brought millions of people together in a way not many other languages have. It’s even used by Iranians to communicate without being caught by their oppressive government. If that hasn’t created peace and a sense of internationality, I don’t know what has. And it’s growing very rapidly. There have been around 9 positive articles about it by mainstream media in the last month. plus, more people speak Esperanto than welsh :b

meWorld population: 6 billion. Wales population: 2.9 million. Hardly a good comparison!

omgitsbrandonnit just provides a comparison to a more commonly known language. No comment on the previous tweets?

meEverything has its niche followers. In more than 120 years Esperanto hasn’t become global. It’s not going to.

omgwell in 120 years Esperanto has increased its number of speakers by 200000000% if I’m correct. Are you going to be around for the next 120?

meTwo hundred billion percent?! [Typo on my part there, his figure was two hundred million, and I’m still not sure of the maths there!] What does that even mean? English is the int’l language.

esperantoThe metric system originated in the 17th century and there are still countries that have not adopted it! (Myanmar, Liberia, USA)

meNo, but all their world leaders speak English. 🙂

omgand think about this. Since the inception of modern english, how much time did it take it to become the de facto international language? Way, way more than 120 years.

meHow long have we been an international community? Way, way less than 120 years.

Then I said to them both: You know, you’re both big esperanto fans. Fair enough. No problem with that. But you’re not going to convince me that there’s any chance of esperanto becoming a global language. But let’s wait and see. 🙂

I went on to talk about the organic development of English as the international language. They argued that that was geopolitical in nature. I said, Same difference! It was a natural development along with geopolitical power.

Then I asked:

How many world leaders, business leaders or religious leaders speak Esperanto? Your answer lies there.

esperantoNot enough… yet. How many leaders would speak in Esperanto if people spread the idea instead of saying that its useles because only few uses it?\

meNone. Why would they learn it? They already learn English from childhood in most countries. Why learn another language as well? It’s not like people will be able to do without English in the meantime.

Then a new Esperanto fan jumped in:

@Babilfrenzoat least one business leader speaks Eo: George Soros world’s 29th richest man. The Pope makes X-mas and Easter greeting in Eo.

omgMany world leaders speak no English either. The point is to -get- them to speak Esperanto. The biggest deterrent is the pessimists *coughcough*.

me to BabilfrenzoOne business leader out of millions, and the Pope twice a year. Compare that to how many speak English.

me to omgNo, the biggest deterrent is that hardly anyone speaks it.;)

I could see that arguing the point further would be like arguing with a fundamentalist Christian about the literal truth of the Bible, so I said:

This argument is circular, I’m done with it. You guys really want Eo to grow global but you’re in a tiny minority. It never will. But if you ever manage to prove me wrong, well done!

The thing is, I don’t think they ever will prove me wrong. The number of Esperanto speakers is probably not that much more than the number of Klingon speakers, and both are tiny in comparison with the other big global languages (particularly English, but also Spanish, French, Chinese, etc.) Esperanto is certainly an interesting idea and probably a fun hobby, but outside the niche group of other Esperanto fans it’s pretty useless.

In fact, I went to check on that previous statement before posting and this had me laughing out loud: While web searching around I came across this article in the National Review Online talking about the rise in numbers of Klingon speakers. What had me laughing? This part:

Indeed, the hip culture says that traditional stuff is worse than old-fashioned, it’s boring. And boredom will drive people to do all sorts of strange things (“like write this stupid column,” my couch just yelled).

And that’s why people are fabricating their own ethnicities. How else do you explain the fact that Esperanto and, you guessed it, Klingon are growing in popularity around the globe? Despite the fact that the linguist Mark Okrand created Klingon only about a decade and half ago, many experts estimate that more people speak Klingon today than Esperanto, which was launched over a century ago.

Oh my goodness, how I laughed.

What do you think? Am I being unkind? Is Esperanto ever likely to become the global language? Leave a comment with your thoughts.