“What do they know of English, those who only English know?”

We at the British Council are currently involved in at least two projects on the theme of multilingualism. One is Language Rich Europe – you’re probably reading this post on the Language Rich Europe project blog right now – and the second is Poliglotti4.eu, which we’re working on in collaboration with our EUNIC colleagues (see Ulla and Julia’s piece last week).  Both projects have received funding from the European Commission.

For these two multilingualism projects, we are recruiting a series of ‘Language Ambassadors’, i.e. people from all walks of life who believe in the benefits of learning other languages and are prepared to say so on camera. They introduce themselves,  answer a series of questions about how they use languages in their work and social lives and tell us about a time when knowing another language came in handy. We’ve had tales involving plain-clothes policemen in Kazakhstan, lobbying in Esperanto for the recognition of Irish as an official language of the EU, and lessons for life in Jamaican patois.

I love making videos and volunteered to film and edit as many language ambassadors as possible to serve both projects (by the way, if you think you fit the bill and want to be interviewed, send me an e-mail). Examples of Language Ambassadors so far include a Belgian multilingual reggae artist (with tattoos on his head), the deputy major of London (no visible tattoos), and Seán Ó Riain, an Irish diplomat who speaks eight languages fluently including Irish, Welsh and, yes, Esperanto.

Now, I don’t know about you, but for me, Esperanto conjures up images of academic recluses, possibly also shortwave radio enthusiasts, who only ever have the chance to meet other like-minded individuals, and converse with them in this artificial language, at Esperanto Club conventions. I won’t go as far as to say “Well, nothing could be further from the truth” but I will say that since interviewing and editing our Language Ambassador Seán I have drastically revised my opinion.  I also learned a lot in the process.

Five interesting things I didn’t know about Esperanto:

  1. It’s the only language that has a time and place of birth (1887,Bialystok) and is one year younger than Coca-Cola (1886).
  2. It was created by Dr. Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof, a Belarusian-Jewish ophthalmologist.
  3. At the time, people in Bialystock (back then part of the Russian Empire) spoke Russian, Polish, German, Yiddish, Belarusian. According to Zamenhof, each group “spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies” and he wanted to create a neutral language of communication.
  4. Critics have said that due to its very strong European nature it cannot be considered a world language. However, the grammatical structure is very close to Chinese (although Zamenhof probably could not have known this).
  5. It’s very easy to learn: 3 years of studying French = 1 year of Esperanto.

And perhaps even more interesting were Seán’s arguments in favour of promoting Esperanto in schools (featured in this post). He reckons that of the people who take languages in school, a high proportion do not progress to a level where they feel that they are successful. And this, he thinks, puts them off learning other languages. With short Esperanto courses (Seán said he was challenged by an Australian Ambassador to learn it from a book in 3 months and succeeded) students can quickly get to grips with a foreign language, know what it’s like to be successful, and move onto a more complex language. Also, throughout the process they’ll learn lessons on grammar and pronunciation which will benefit further language learning.

As Seán sees it, learning another language, any language, is fun, and it gives you a better grasp of your mother tongue. He likes to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling’s “What do they know ofEngland, who only England know?” with “What do they know of English, who only English know?” In my case I know that I only learned about language tenses and language parts when I learned Spanish, so I tend to agree.

All Language Ambassador videos will be available soon on the Poliglotti4.eu and Language Rich Europe websites – until then I’d love to hear your thoughts on Esperanto, learning multiple languages, and whether you yourself would like to be a language ambassador. And if you are a shortwave radio enthusiast, you’re also invited to come forward and defend yourself!

Jonathan Brennan (Aptalops).

Meeting of Esperanto speakers in Huesco, Spain (1920)

Meeting of Esperanto speakers in Huesco, Spain (1920)

8 thoughts on ““What do they know of English, those who only English know?”

    • Thanks Brian – you’ve highlighted another one of the many things I didn’t know about Esperanto.
      One of the issues we discussed during the interview was whether Esperanto is the friend or foe of multilingualism – Seán argued for friend – I’ll let you know when the video is online (within the next week), but your point backs this up.
      Thanks for reading,

  1. May I add that esperanto has only 16 grammatical rules and is so easier to learn than any other language. Of course vocabulary you always have to learn but also this is much easier. a noun always ends on -o, plural is always with a j, etc…
    e.g. man = viro; woman = virino; men = viroj, women = virinoj, men and women = geviroj,…
    It used to start as a language for the elite but knowadays everybody can learn it.
    A good book in english = Teach yourself esperanto.
    Marc CUFFEZ
    Flemish Esperanto Union

    • Thanks Marc – I’m interested in how and why you first learned Esperanto? Is Esperanto big in Belgium? Or in Flanders?
      I was handed a tiny card, about the size of a business card, at the interview and was told that all of the grammar I needed to know was on the card (which also had a pronunciation chart) – so I would agree with your comment that it is easier to learn than any other language!
      Thanks for reading,

  2. Pingback: Why Should I Learn Esperanto? | Learn and Practice Esperanto

  3. I’m Italian and, before start the university, my English level was too low and too bad. During the pre-university period, I also had classes of French (France is so close to Italy!), but I wasn’t good at any of these.
    Obviously, I had friends whose English level was better than mine, but nonetheless too low to let they feel they’ve reached a good and sufficient level.
    After I embraced the challenge of Chinese. It’s so different from ours indo-european languages! But the curiosity of comprehend what a chinese say and think was too intense to let me down.
    During this hard-studing and seemingly never-ending period, I knew about Esperanto, as an international language created by a person. Well, I was intrigued by the simplicity (after years of suffering by english and chinese), so I decided to give a chance to Esperanto. I start to studying it, doing it lonely, and day after day I felt more and more amused and interested in it. So I abandoned for a year Chinese and I concentrated on Esperanto. This was the best choice of my language-life.
    In fact, studying Esperanto gave me a lot of before-unknown knowledge about my own language. And what about the others? Too! Well, I felt my power to study and reach a good level of a non-native language. I felt that the study of another non-as-easy-as-Esperanto language wasn’t only possible, but also feasible: I only need a lot of time more than the case of Esperanto. I thought: if they taught me Esperanto when I was young! Today I would have a better level of understanding of what is a language.
    Let’s think: Esperanto is so easy that his teaching would require much less time than any other native-language to the native ones!
    And what after Esperanto? Well, I was so intrigued by my reaching, that I felt in power to embrace another language beyond Chinese: I started to learn Russian. Well, I’m studying Russian regularly for 9 months. And the desire of studying other languages is more intense than ever!
    Before Esperanto I was interested only in Chinese; after Esperanto I became interested in all languages and cultures!

    I finish my comment with an advice: there are a lot of places on internet where speak, read and write in Esperanto. I found my place on Ipernity (and it is also written in Esperanto), where there is an huge group of esperantists (thousands).
    Lernu.net is the main site where to find information and start this wonderful journey in the land of different cultures!

    • Hi Kvantumo, thank you for sharing your experience. I think sometimes finding the right language to learn is important – in your case it was Esperanto. A language teacher told me once that German should be taught more in schools in Scotland because boys prefer it to other languages that are offered. Once you get someone’s interest with one language, they are more likely to go and learn another. Maybe, as you say, Esperanto would be a good starting point.

  4. There are many reasons to learn Esperanto. As a native English speaker, I found I can find friends many times easier in the Esperanto community than I can with people who only speak English. Thousands of Esperanto speakers want to show you their town. About one thousand have opened their homes for overnights for free to Esperanto speakers with the group Pasporta Servo. I have learned so much from Esperanto during my travels: I have learned about how Scandinavia has fulfilled my dream of equality of the sexes, offered equal chances of becoming a leader in their countries, offering good maternity leave, so they can offer love to their children. If only Americans could learn the big differences in other cultures!

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