My recent challenge to become fluent in Esperanto in one week seems to have drawn a lot of attention. What's most interesting to me, though, is that the majority of the feedback I've received has been in regard to my disappointment in the language and its community, rather than my learning style or my results.
I'm receiving a lot of emails, chats, tweets, and blog comments from Esperantists who seem to have taken some sort of offense to my opinion that Esperanto is a very good language for talking about Esperanto, but not much good for anything else. So today I'd like to take a little time to go into more detail about that, and also how I think the Esperanto community could help to change that.
Curiously, the people who disagree with me spend most of their time telling me to join a local Esperanto club, but Esperanto clubs usually meet for only a few hours per month. And I don't know about all of them, but I do know that the one here in Chicago also has membership dues.
What makes Esperanto different from other languages
The main problem I have is that I experience Esperanto in a completely different way than I experience any other language, and I assume this is true for most people. With every other language, I can hear people speaking it in the street or on the bus; I can find movies, and tv shows, and music in that language; I can find endless web site in that language. But with Esperanto, there is only the "esperanto community". I'll explain how that's different.
With Spanish, for instance, I meet Spanish-speaking people every day. The guy standing next to me at the bus stop speaks Spanish. The couple sitting across from me are speaking to each other in Spanish. The guy behind the counter at the food court takes my order in English and someone else's order in Spanish. I go home and turn on the television and there are several channels of programming in Spanish. None of these things happen in Esperanto.
With Russian, my experience is a little different, but still very similar. As I walk down the street, I hear the woman in front of me speaking Russian on the phone. When I'm at home, I enjoy watching Russian movies. A few of my favorite music groups sing in Russian. When I'm in a bar, or at a club, or at a party, or anywhere else that people meet people, I can hear someone's accent and immediately know they speak Russian. I have friends here from Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus, and the common bond between them all (and now me) is speaking Russian -- and I don't mean getting together to use the language, I mean they borrow each other's cookbooks, and watch each other's movies, and listen to each other's music. I'm sorry, this just isn't happening in Esperanto.
I could go on and on, with Polish, or Ukrainian, or Italian, or German, or French. Most of the time, I can just look at someone and know that they speak a particular language. And similarly, I can usually tell where a person is from by their accent. But these things don't happen in Esperanto.
If I want the best prices on meat, I don't go to the supermarket — the best prices are at the Polish deli, and yes, I can fumble through a visit to the Polish deli knowing only English, but knowing thing as simple as przepraszam, proszę, and dziękuję go a long way. But you're not going to buy meat, or a newspaper, or a bottle of water in Esperanto.
When a tourist stops me on the street to ask for directions, they fumble through it in English, but often I can tell where they are from by their accent, appearance, clothing, or just by asking, and if their English isn't good, I can often help them out in their own native language. But I seriously doubt that I'm going to encounter very many lost tourists who have even heard of Esperanto, much less who speak it.
I'm not trying to be negative, or to bash Esperanto. These are simply facts.
How could it be better?
It is necessary to understand those things that Esperanto isn't, in order to make the most of what Esperanto is. The reality of Esperanto is that you must organize your contact with other esperantists. This is not a natural way to experience a language, but it doesn't have to be a bad thing. The bad thing is going to the work of organizing a way to socialize, only to spend that time discussing... you guessed it: Esperanto.
I didn't learn Russian just to sit around discussing the Russian language. I didn't learn Spanish to discuss the Spanish language. It's a great disappointment to me, to think that people learn Esperanto, only to talk to each other about learning Esperanto.
If the Esperanto community ever wants to be taken seriously, there need to be some web sites in Esperanto that talk about real things: news, sports, arts, life. There need to be Esperanto Flash games, and Esperanto crossword puzzles. There needs to be decent music. There needs to be some advantage to having learned the language. There need to be things to buy, and places to buy them, and so on.
Yes, I understand that some people actually are using Esperanto for real conversations. And some are even meeting people around the world thanks to Esperanto. But it would be nice if these were the people you find when you search for Esperanto on Google.
Imagine the possibilities
If there were a place where you could buy things at a great price, but it was only open to Esperanto speakers, there would be a real benefit in learning Esperanto.
If there were a place where new esperantists could meet each other and connect with other esperantists in their area, or find new friends abroad — easily — there would be more interest in Esperanto.
If there were a place where esperantists could easily find a chat partner, that would be a huge benefit to the community, especially to those still learning. And imagine if that chat partner had something to say about world politics, or sports, or cooking... or anything more than just talking about the language!
These might be separate places, or they might all be one place. And there's no reason there couldn't be more than one — after all, there's competition in every other language!
Instead of writing to me with emails, or tweets, or chat dialogs telling me how wrong I am, I challenge all the esperantists out there to put their money where their mouth is. Put up or shut up, as they say.
Don't show me web sites about Esperanto... show me Esperanto web sites about cooking. Or sports. Or automobiles. Write some music. Make some graphics. Design a web site. Make some YouTube videos. Make and sell some Esperanto t-shirts or bumper stickers. Just whatever you do, don't use it to talk about Esperanto. Give the Esperanto community some substance for a change.
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