METM23 Chronicles: Siru Laine

La internacia lingvo – Using Esperanto to ease communication

As a lover of foreign languages, I was intrigued at the prospect of attending Siru Laine’s* talk about Esperanto and how it can be used to ease communication. I came in knowing very little about this artificially constructed language apart from a small 1960s Esperanto phrasebook my father kept in his bookshelf when I was a kid. I hadn’t come across the language much since then and assumed it had faded into irrelevance. But, as I’d discover over the course of Siru’s presentation, Esperanto is alive and well in the 21st century and has even enjoyed something of a resurgence lately.

Esperanto (“one who hopes”) was the brainchild of Polish oculist Ludovic L. Zamenhof, who developed it in the 1870s and 1880s with the aim of creating a universal second language that would facilitate international communication and promote world peace. It was designed to be easy to learn, drawing on elements of Romance, Slavic and Germanic languages as well as Greek. It boasts a grammar system with no exceptions, no irregular verbs, no genders and only one definite article. For an English speaker, Esperanto is considered to be five times as easy to learn as Spanish or French. Because of its Eurocentricity, however, speakers of Asian languages are at a distinct disadvantage – which made it surprising to learn that Esperanto is actually quite popular in Asia. The Chinese government even publishes an Esperanto version of its official website!

Siru showed us a slide with some interesting statistics on Esperanto usage worldwide. There are currently about 100,000 active Esperanto speakers and 10,000 fluent ones. Over 1,000 people even have it as their mother tongue, despite the fact that Esperanto hasn’t been a secondary official language of any country, nor an official language of the United Nations. How is this possible? The answer is the annual World Congress that Esperantists have been organizing almost every year since 1905, most recently in Turin. Many couples have met at these events and gone on to have Esperanto-speaking children (Siru told us she was almost one of them!).

La internacia lingvo at METM23

It also turns out there’s an active Esperanto translation community. Many well-known works of literature have been translated into the language, including classics such as Jane Eyre, Dante’s Inferno, The Little Prince, 100 Years of Solitude, Romeo and Juliet and even Lord of the Rings. Original Esperanto works are also being translated into “real” languages, a recent example being The Narrow Cage and Other Modern Fairy Tales, a selection of short stories penned by Ukrainian writer and ardent Esperantist Vasily Eroshenko more than 100 years ago. Siru also showed us examples of Esperanto being used to make scientific research papers accessible to a global audience.

These successes notwithstanding, she made it clear that Esperanto isn’t going to replace English as the lingua franca for business and science anytime soon (despite the dreams of some hard-core Esperantists). But it can certainly help level the language playing field and make it easier for non-English speakers to participate in international events on topics other than Esperanto. And the future looks bright: Duolingo launched an Esperanto course for English speakers in 2015, and learning the language became a popular pastime during pandemic lockdowns, with 1.3 million English-speaking learners and 360,000 Spanish-speaking ones. Plus, last year saw the introduction of a CEFR C2 exam for Esperanto. Siru was among the first to be certified at this highest level – an accomplishment she likened to being rich in Monopoly money. But, as Esperantists often say, “If you want to make money, learn English; if you want to make friends, learn Esperanto.”


*Sign in to the MET website to view Siru’s profile.

This METM23 presentation was chronicled by Jonathan Kotcheff.

Featured photo by METM23 photographer Leonardo Rizzato; embedded photo by the author.

Leave a Reply